‘Hello, how are you, hello how are you, hello, how are you?’
The voices merged inside her head and soon became an echoing ‘heluuu, heluuuuuuuuu’ sound somewhere at the back of her eyes. With the ‘swish, swish, swish’ of the automatic door opening and closing behind her, a headache-symphony was developing somewhere inside her brain.
At least it took her mind off being nice to everybody. She didn’t know how long she could keep that up. Perhaps a tape recorder concealed under the counter with a recorded message and…
‘Excuse me sweetheart, can you tell me where the special on toilet rolls is today?’
It was Maria’s second week in Chubbs Family Market and she was starting to wonder if taking on the job had been a terrible mistake.
‘It’s only til something better comes along ‘said her mother. ‘Something always does.’
‘Nothing better has come along for Mum, ‘ thought Maria as she left for work that morning with the familiar words pursuing her down the path to the front gate.
Nothing better had come along for her mother ever since her father went north to look for work three months ago and hadn’t come back. He’d left Maria, her mother and her younger brother Peter and sister Monica high and dry.
In the first few days, there had been a scratchy postcard from Surfers and then silence.
‘I think there may be something coming up here in a few weeks’ read the postcard, while on the other side a photo of a line of high-rise apartments seemed to be creeping slowly into the sea as if trying to escape the tourists.
Maria turned the card over and over but no hidden messages fell out. Perhaps the strain of three children had been too much for him. They were left to make ends meet somehow. Maria as the eldest felt obliged to leave Year Twelve at the Bounty Springs High School when the job at Chubbs came up.
She was doing so well in Chemistry too. Pity about that. She loved doing experiments, the mixing of coloured liquids and powders, the way it all fizzed unexpectedly sometimes and then the colour changing magically before her eyes. She had started to perfect her special colour green using sulphate extracts, which created a sort of pale lime green colour. All too soon though classes came to an end.
Now the challenge was to recognise the different types of fruit and vegetables as they were plonked on the scales in front of her. It wasn’t as simple as it seemed.
Chubbs was slowly introducing a variety of new fruit and vegetables to whet the jaded appetites of the growing number of tourists who were now crowding to the small town every weekend.
‘They’ll feel at home that way’ boasted Mr Chubb, ‘as if they haven’t really left Fitzroy and St Kilda.’
‘If we can make them feel at home, they’ll buy anything’ said his thick red lips in his pale pumpkin-shaped face during one of his weekly ‘’inspirationals’’ as he called his staff training sessions.
Now that city professionals had ‘discovered’ Bounty Springs with its health-giving mineral waters, the town was going through a boom. Quaint B&Bs were opening up all over town and small cottages that were falling down one year had now been renovated and were fetching $800 to rent for a weekend.
Maria had only just got used to normal zucchini, when Mr Chubb introduced another variety- the Italian zucchini. It was smaller and fatter and a paler green, almost a lime green, which made it Maria’s favourite vegetable, once she got used to it. It really was a cute little vegetable, she thought, as she fondled it with its two regular indentations, looking for all the world like a pair of curious eyes peering out of its sweet little face.
The worst thing though about being at Chubbs was working on the weekends. Then she had to deal with the ‘blow-ins’ as the locals called them. All those rich professionals from Melbourne and their children with names like Priscilla and Justin. Spoilt bloody kids too, who demanded chocolate or bags of chips and whinged so much that their parents, Brent and Sarsaparilla just gave in.
Maria knew Monica and Peter would never get away with that sort of childish blackmail.
Mr Chubb had trained his staff on handling just this type of ‘child/parent conflict-resolution’ sort of situation. He prided himself on being able to anticipate any sort of ‘commercial opportunity’ as he preferred to view crises with the public.
After all that’s how the training video described this sort of situation. He’d bought the video to improve his sales skills. ‘’How to keep the Customer Smiling and the Profit Margin High’’ came in a double video set consisting of six hours advice on improving business with up to date advertising methods and exercises designed to keep staff always on their toes. He had thought about showing it to his staff one day, but perhaps not yet. No point in giving all his secrets away too soon.
‘Just keep smiling in a tense situation’ he advised during his ‘’inspirationals.’’
‘Just keep showing those pearly whites and you’ll get them to buy anything.’
Maria had been on the late shift one Saturday and finished work about eight o’clock. She was in no hurry. She was going home to an empty house as her mother had taken the two youngest to Ballarat to stay with her sister. They would go to a film that night and not return until Sunday evening.
Maria was pleased. No whinging Monica and Peter. Just Molly, her old long-haired sheepdog waiting at the front gate and a pot of her mother’s soup on the stove to be warmed.
No boys either. After all, she was more interested in the magic of chemistry than the boys in this town. Those totally uncool boys who came into the supermarket with their big red grimy hands and their silly lopsided grins at the checkout.
If she ever had a boyfriend, she decided he would be a scientist or an intellectual of some sort. Tall with pale skin and glasses. Hair that fell over his eyes. She would of course casually brush the hair out of his eyes as they sat discussing physics or chemistry or the latest advances in space travel.
He would be good-looking though and his lips would be red and full but not like Mr Chubb’s. Yuk, no.
Molly was waiting at the gate wagging her ragged tail and the two were soon lying next to one another on the sofa in front of the fire. Molly’s paws twitched every now and then as she chased rabbits in her dreams. Maria was hoping to read one of her old chemistry textbooks with those wonderful coloured diagrams on molecular structure, but she was too tired. Her head began to nod and soon the book fell on the floor.
The two slept on.
Maria woke sometime in the middle of the night. There was an explosion in the air above the house. It sounded as if it was about a foot above the roof. Maria knew this immediately as she woke.
‘My god’. Her heart beat as if it was trying to escape from her chest. ‘What the hell was that?’
An explosion? Or a car accident? Maria fumbled for her torch and looked for Molly. She was under the table and refused to come out. Maria parted the curtains on the big bay window looking onto the main road but saw nothing.
She moved to the lounge windows that gave a view onto the back garden and drew back the heavy velvet drapes. The ones that reminded her of a theatre.
And there in the middle of the garden on the lawn, next to her father’s disused vegetable patch she saw lights. Not ordinary lights though. She saw a circular object in the middle of the lawn, encircled by a series of glowing yellow lights. Slowly the lights were flashing on and off in some strange hypnotic rhythm.
‘Wow. This is amazing. ‘
Maria called Molly as she moved toward the back door to investigate but Molly stayed under the table. Every now and then the dog gave a sympathetic growl, as if to say: ‘I’m with you but I think I’ll just stay here, thanks.’
Maria would have to investigate on her own. It looked like an accident. Somebody might be hurt.
She walked down the garden with the torch but there was really no need for more light. The whole garden was bathed in a strange yellow glow. Lights flashing on and off, carrying on some sort of a conversation with each other. The bare branches of her mother’s fruit trees projected weird shadows against the wall of the house. And there was a slight hum in the air. Comforting somehow, like the breath of a sleeping baby. There were windows on the side of the object and Maria crept up to one and eagerly peered inside. She gave an involuntary shriek and jumped back again. Something was looking back at her. Silly me, she thought. For one minute she thought it looked like a bigger version of her Italian zucchini with sweet little eyes looking out at her.
At least the supermarket job gave her enough money to move out of home at last. Away from her mother’s relentless questions and the giggling Monica and Peter.
‘You must tell me dear’ pleaded her mother. ‘I’m responsible for you after all.’
‘It’s no one you know Mum and I’ll be okay. I’ve still got my job.’
A little cottage came up for rent on the edge of town. The old woman, Mrs Fellini who had lived there most of her life, had no children but raised three nephews and nieces on her own. Finally she had to move to a nursing home and her niece, Stephanie left a note on the public notice board of the supermarket: “House for rent- minimal.’ The note wasn’t clear whether the rent or the house was minimal.
It was rundown like many of the old weatherboard cottages built in the days when gold was being discovered around Bounty Springs. It needed a good clean, Maria discovered when she and Molly fought their way through the overgrown garden to the back door.
‘It’s okay, Mum. It just needs a bit of fixing here and there. I’d really rather be away from those nosy old biddies in town.’
Maria ripped up the old worn lino with the pale blue flower design and found sturdy Baltic pine boards underneath. The smell of stale urine was a bit much at first but she scrubbed and scrubbed the boards with hot water and disinfectant until they almost shone.
Her energy was amazing. She wondered where it came from. Once she cleaned out the house, she started on the garden. She found an overgrown herb patch outside the back door with tendrils of lavender and hyssop entwined. Most of the herbs were unknown to her but she loved the strong smells, which hung in the air as she hacked her way through the winter garden. Molly lay on the veranda and watched through half-open eyes.
Maria worked only part-time at the supermarket now and that suited her just fine. Nobody seemed to pay too much attention to her and that suited her too. At least she didn’t have to work weekends and deal with those city kids anymore.
There was too much to do on weekends anyway. She felt she could do anything now. She painted two rooms that wonderful lime-green colour. So calming. She planted more herbs and kept a book listing their medicinal uses and sometimes did small drawings of plants and flowers. She found an old book in Mrs Fellini’s wardrobe- ‘Libro de Medicina’ and soon she began to learn the Italian names for some of the herbs in her garden. Her own note-book she called ‘Libro de Medicina number two.’
Three months had passed since that amazing night in her mother’s back garden and Maria knew it was almost time now. She was feeling so energetic and no sickness like her mother had warned. She did allow herself to be convinced by her mother that when the time came she should go back home.
Mrs Carroll, the midwife was on call and one afternoon while sitting on Mrs Fellini’s back veranda, Maria felt a shift inside her belly and waters gushed down her legs. It was time to go home. No pain though. Funny that. She calmly called Molly from the garden, took her big bag from the peg on the back of the door and locked the door with the oversized key before walking slowly to her mother’s house.
Mrs Carroll got such a shock that she decided it was time to take that long holiday her sister in Brisbane had always wanted her to take. The morning after the birth she took the early bus to Melbourne to catch the train. Her brother-in- law was always saying she’d go batty living in the country and perhaps he was right this time.
Maria’s mother was tight-lipped and grim. It wasn’t quite what she had always imagined but there you go. Children always do something you don’t expect. She wasn’t so sure about something better coming along either and after a week when Maria had returned to Mrs Fellini’s house and seemed okay, she took the two younger children to her sister in Ballarat for an extended holiday.
Maria was happy with just the three of them anyway, working in her herb garden, gathering the herbs and drying them in her big airy kitchen. Her energy was still unbelievable and she though she might enrol in a correspondence course in ‘Herbs and their medicines.’ She wasn’t too thrilled about the tiny teeth marks on her breasts from the feeding but then this baby was growing fast. She mixed a tincture of herbs into an ointment and the tiny cuts healed in a day.
Maria went to town only when necessary and tried to keep her distance from the eyes of the old biddies.
One day when she was pushing the pram down the lane back from the supermarket she saw her way was blocked by a group of three of her mother’s friends. It was too late to turn back and already the women were gathering round the pram to inspect the baby. Mrs Thompson who was already a grandmother twice over was first to move forward ready to gaze into the pram.
‘I bet she’s got those beautiful long eyelashes from your mother’s family’ gushed Mrs Thompson as she looked expectantly into the pram.
‘Oh look she’ got her shopping in the pram with the baby. Clever girl. What’s that I can see?’
‘Italian zucchini’ snapped Maria as she pushed past them down the hill.