by Laurie Steed
Westerly is the premier literary journal of Western Australia, publishing since 1956. Westerly produces poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction from around the world, with a focus on the voice of Western Australian authors. Westerly publishes two print editions a year and digitally year-round.
Laurie Steed is a writer and editor from Western Australia. He won the Patricia Hackett Prize for Fiction in 2012, and in 2014 was selected as the first Australian Fellow in the history of the Sozopol Fiction Seminars. He lives in Perth, Western Australia with his wife and two young sons.
‘Wallpaper’ was first published in Westerly 58.2, November 2012.
They had argued about the colour of the walls all afternoon. Patrick wanted light blue, sky-like, or so he said, cracks filled in and a vibrant reimagining for their family home. Jen replied that with kids, you had to go with wallpaper. You needed to be able to wipe away the mess they left behind, she said, tossing a ring of colour swatches onto the couch.
It mattered very much how things looked, said Patrick. Without beauty, a home was just four walls, a roof, and fingerprints smudging the handle of the fridge. You can get beautiful wallpaper, said Jen. That’s fine, said Patrick, but wallpaper peels away. One day you’re left with the wall, and you’d better hope that it’s pretty, too.
In the end, they agreed to let it lie. Some things were more important than the colour of the walls, or how you covered the cracks. Tonight was Emily’s recital. It seemed only fair to put their differences aside. To focus on things they’d done right instead of all that could possibly go wrong.
‘You ready, Em?’ Jen called across the landing.
‘Nearly,’ said Emily, from behind a half-closed bedroom door.
She heard an ‘oof’, and then voices, raised. ‘Jay says he can’t go ’cause he’s stupid,’ Alex yelled from downstairs.
‘Alex,’ called Patrick, ‘be good or you won’t go.’
‘Great,’ said Alex.
‘Oops,’ said Jen, slipping a tie from the coat rail.
The silk slid across her fingers. The dust coated the headboard. Knock it off, thought Jen. The dust, the two of them rocking back and forth, if only they had the time, or the energy. She heard the bump, bump, bounce of Alex and Jay jumping on the living room couches.
‘It was Jay,’ shouted Alex. Then quietly: ‘She always thinks it’s me.’
Jen rested the tie around her husband’s neck, looping it over itself, and then gently tightened the strip of blue, seeking the button to slip inside the fabric.
‘Now, if we take this bit down—’
‘You look amazing,’ said Patrick.
‘You. You look gorgeous.’
‘Thank you. You look pretty good yourself,’ said Jen, pulling him close.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean me, this. I’m not always there for you. At least, not how I’d like to be.’
‘Can we start again?’ He guided her gaze to his with his index finger.
Jen nodded, smiling. She liked to watch him dress; to watch him undress, too, charting his shadow as he walked half-naked across the bedroom.
‘Emily’s getting good,’ said Patrick as he slipped into his blazer.
‘You ever tell her?’
He paused. ‘I must have… I’m sure I have, at least once.’
‘Tell her. How else is she going to know?’
‘You shouldn’t mollycoddle your kids.’
‘Or ignore them,’ said Jen, under her breath. She finished with her lipstick and then capped it. She rubbed top lip on bottom, rose from the height of the mirror, snuck a stray, teased hair back behind her ear and smoothed an already tight black dress.
‘I’m getting fat.’
‘Me,’ said Jen. ‘I’m huge.’
Patrick’s hand went to her cheek. ‘What did we say?’
‘Brush before bed?’
‘You said whenever you were being hard on yourself, I had to throw you onto the bed and make love to you, regardless of whether or not the door was closed. I heard Emily head down the stairs…I can send Alex and Jay out for ice cream.’
He slipped a hand down her side.
She giggled. ‘Patrick!’
‘Say that you’re beautiful.’
He pushed her onto the bed.
‘Beautiful,’ said Jen.
‘Phew. Our daughter will never know how close she came to serious trauma.’
He lifted his wife off the bed. ‘And what else?’ asked Patrick. She shrugged her shoulders. ‘We fight for this. Always.’
They packed into the car. Alex punched Jay because he was taking up too much space. Patrick demisted the windscreen as Jen undid Jay’s seatbelt, lifted him up and told Emily to please move across.
‘Can’t we just go?’ said Emily. ‘We’re going to be late.’
‘We’re not going to be late,’ said Jen.
‘I don’t have to come,’ said Alex, pulling his shirt out from inside his trousers.
‘Yes you do,’ said Jen. She turned around. ‘Alex, look after your brother, OK? And tuck your shirt in.’
‘OK,’ said Alex, kicking the back of the passenger seat. ‘God, piano recitals are so poofy.’
‘Do you even know what that means?’ Alex shook his head. ‘Then don’t say it.’
‘What’s Mum talking about?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Patrick. ‘Just don’t say it, all right?’
‘Fine. I love piano recitals. They’re my favourite.’
Jen shot a glare at Patrick. ‘What did we say?’
‘Well, I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘You make up these rules, how am I supposed to keep track?’
‘You think, Patrick. You just need—’
‘Can we just have a good time tonight? Please?’
‘It’s the next left.’
Patrick flicked the indicator, tapping his foot in time with its tick-tick. Cars clustered around the driveway and spilled out onto the verge. The family wandered in, trailing a girl and her parents, both of whom repeated how amazing she was.
Alex laughed. ‘Dad.’
‘Do you think Emily will suck?’
‘Alex,’ said Jen. ‘Pack it in.’
‘I didn’t do anything,’ said Alex, kicking at the grass. ‘God!’
They wandered in through the open front door. The hall led into a crowded living room, the shelves stocked with silverware, china and the odd family photograph.
The parents were grouped in a tight semi-circle with the kids kneeled close to the piano. Patrick motioned to the snack table and mimed eating. Jen nodded, and he turned away.
‘Dad!’ called Jay.
‘Sorry, baby boy,’ said Patrick and scooped him into his arms, redoing a buckle on Jay’s dungarees as he went. He held out his son to evaluate the end product. ‘Better,’ he said, bringing Jay back to his chest. He caught Jen’s gaze. ‘Back soon.’
Jen glanced around the room. Flawless fathers, modern mums. Probably packed tiny dinners, eating them on the front verandah with Ikea cutlery. Or worse, they’d cooked dinner beforehand, dishwasher now churning and a Kinder egg for the kids before they left. Model parents with colour-coded lunchboxes, knowing Jo doesn’t like Vegemite, and Declan likes his crusts cut off, and—
‘Jen,’ called a voice from behind.
She turned to see a man in a crisp crimson shirt, black dress pants ironed down the crease.
‘Peter. What are you doing here?’
‘Natalie,’ said Peter. He pointed to a blonde-haired girl, crosslegged near the piano, her hair in a tight plait. ‘Emily?’
She nodded. ‘Peter—’
‘I know,’ he said. ‘Not a good time.’
‘No, not at—’
‘Hi,’ said Patrick, squeezing between them. ‘I don’t think we’ve met.’
‘This is Peter,’ said Jen. ‘Natalie’s dad. You know Natalie.’
‘No,’ said Patrick.
‘She’s Emily’s friend. Where’s Emily?’
‘She needed to go to the loo. I think she’s nervous.’
‘You sure she’s OK?’
‘I think so.’
‘Do you want to check?’
He smiled uncomfortably. ‘Back soon.’
Patrick sidestepped out of the living room as he trod carefully in his size ten loafers, slowly making his way between seated children. Jen raised an eyebrow. Peter waited until Patrick was out of the room.
‘I’ve got the place this weekend. Said it was a work retreat.’
‘A weekend?’ said Jen. ‘In Pinjarra?’
‘Later, then. A carnal catch-up,’ he said, grinning.
‘Now’s not the time.’ She glanced nervously around the room.
Alex pulled at his mother’s arm to get her attention. He looked first at her, then at Peter. ‘Who are you?’
‘I’m a friend of your mother’s.’
‘My mum doesn’t have any friends,’ said Alex. He turned to his mother.
‘What? You don’t.’
‘He’s getting me chips,’ said Alex. ‘And a Coke.’
‘Brothers, hey? Can’t live with them, can’t shoot them.’ said Peter.
‘I don’t like you.’
‘Alex!’ said Jen.
‘I don’t. He smells funny.’
‘It’s all right,’ said Peter. ‘I’m going, anyway. Nice to see you, Jen.’
‘Glad he’s gone,’ said Alex.
‘Ssh,’ said Jen. ‘Your father’s coming.’
Emily and Patrick returned. Emily ran up to Jen, pulling at her arm. ‘I’m going to go sit with the other kids.’
‘Good luck, darling,’ said Jen as she straightened her daughter’s hairband, its bow brought back to the centre. She kissed Emily on her forehead, watched her run to take her seat with the other children. Saw a spot of lint on her daughter’s otherwise immaculate blue-silk taffeta dress, but too late now, she thought. No need to worry her any more than necessary.
The teacher stood in front of the piano, facing the audience. ‘Tonight we’re hearing some of the most talented pianists I’ve had the pleasure of teaching. They range from Grade 1 to Grade 5, so they are at varying stages. They’ve all been working hard, though, so I’m sure you’ll show your appreciation with a warm round of applause.’
Emily looked back at her mother. Jen raised her thumb in approval.
The recital began. Patrick held Alex close. Jen held Jay’s hand. Once the music started, Jay seemed placid. His feet no longer tapped, his hand gone limp.
‘You good?’ asked Jen.
Jay nodded, snuggling up to his mother. ‘Mummy,’ he whispered. She bent down. ‘I love you.’
Jen reached down to cuddle him close. ‘Love you too, baby. Don’t ever forget that.’
Alex also seemed calm. Jen felt silly to have chided him; what did it matter who handed out the discipline? Why did she always feel the need to appear authoritative?
She thought again of her mother, veins tensing in her neck, pulling at her daughter’s ear. Tears turned to terror; an unshakeable fear that everything she’d ever done was wrong.
With Patrick, she felt hope. He’d not left yet, and though things hadn’t been great, they were still together. Things could always be better, and yet, in Peter’s arms, she felt…not safe, but sensual. Even now, she felt his stare warm the back of her neck. She almost turned around but stopped herself, short of breath at the thought of another betrayal.
She tuned in at the end of a young boy’s Liebestraum No. 3. It was no better or worse than any other time she’d heard it.
There was an almost ecstatic round of applause from the child’s parents, their applause punctuated by an occasional holler of support. Sophie called Emily to the piano. She bowed once, smiled, and then lifted herself onto the stool.
‘Boo,’ yelled Alex. ‘Get off.’
Jen looked over to Patrick, who dragged Alex out, despite his howls. Emily tapped a foot pedal in double-time as practice, her knee almost hitting the piano. Jen relaxed a little and offered the widest smile she could muster. Emily rolled her shoulders, took a deep breath and began to play Für Elise.
She played so beautifully, thought Jen. It was the proudest she had ever been, not for her daughter’s skill, but for sharing a moment: Her, Emily and Jay. No Alex to say the wrong thing, or mess things up, and Patrick… well, he’d never been great with praise.
Emily played on, bit softly on her bottom lip as her fingers traversed the keys. When not in use, her pinkies wiggled slightly, nearly hitting wrong notes but lifting just before they landed.
Keep going, thought Jen. You’re doing so well.
She began the final verse note-perfect, her back straight and fingers slightly bent. Jen scanned the room for Patrick and Alex, but they were still outside. As the piece reached its climax, Jen felt a hand on her waist. She turned, startled. Peter stood within a hand span of her left shoulder. Her tiny gasp was drowned out by the music. He put a finger to his lips, and Jen turned back to the piano. As the song was about to finish, he shifted his hand to the small of her back.
The audience clapped. Emily turned away from the piano, seeking her mother’s approval, but instead saw Jen and Peter, closer than they should have been. Emily froze. Peter whispered, nudging in a little closer. Jen nodded, clasped his hand, and he disappeared into the crowd. Jen turned back a second too late. Emily had jumped off the chair and run out of the room, headed straight for the front door.
Jen struggled to part the crowd, sidling past parents holding champagne glasses, grasping Jay’s hand as tightly as possible. Try as she could, she couldn’t make her way through.
She slammed open the screen door, which bucked against the outside wall, its handle letting out a tinny clang. With Jay now scooped in one arm, Jen saw the three of them at the car. Emily was in Patrick’s arms, crying. Alex was in the back of the car, kicking the driver’s seat.
‘Baby, are you all right?’ said Jen. She turned to Patrick. ‘Is she all right?’
‘She’s fine,’ said Patrick. ‘Something spooked her.’
Emily wouldn’t look at her.
‘Baby, it’s fine. You did really well.’
‘What happened?’ said Patrick.
‘It’s nothing,’ he said. She kissed Emily on the cheek. ‘She’s just tired. You did great, baby. I’m so proud of you.’ She turned to Patrick. ‘Come on, love. Let’s get these guys home.’
Patrick put the kids to bed. Jen climbed the stairs, ran her left hand up the wall, feeling bumps and blemishes.
She removed her make-up, cleansed and moisturised, wiping the bathroom sink dry with a scrunched-up tissue. Took the clips from her hair, let it fall in front of her face. Brushed her teeth, scrubbed and scrubbed, spat it out, a flush of the tap to wash away the foam.
She knew she had to call it off with Peter. And yet…he was exciting, awake, turned on by her presence. With Patrick, it was as if he were analysing her. Forever so distant, his thoughts like quotes from a technical manual.
Her lips had lost colour. Crinkles formed around her eyes, and her skin was fast losing its elasticity. She lifted up her dress, flinging it onto the bathroom tiles. Saw herself on display: lumps, bumps and cellulite thighs. You’re ugly, Jen. How could you ever expect to keep a man?
Saw Emily’s face, rushed to the toilet and was sick, the taste of wine clinging to her lips, saying baby, I’m sorry.
Patrick came up late. He sat on the bed and faced away from Jen, towards the chest of drawers, slipping his jacket onto the bedpost before loosening his tie. He took it off, hung it over his jacket, and then unbuttoned his shirt.
Jen watched him in the dark, a shadow in the hallway’s casting light. His form, familiar: belly bump, more crest than barrel.
‘Come to bed,’ said Jen.
‘In a minute.’
‘Is Emily alright?’
‘She’s fine. A bit shaken up.’
‘How was Alex? He wouldn’t leave her alone.’
‘Kids are smart. They know when something’s up.’
‘What do you mean?’
Patrick turned to his wife, meeting her gaze. ‘I’m not sure. Is there something you need to tell me?’
She stared past him at the wall, just below the windowsill. She’d seen it before, maybe weeks, months earlier. A hairline crack. Small, but spreading.
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