THURSDAY: The Price of Luxury

BY KIM FARLEIGH

Copyright is held by the author.

YEARS AGO, I stayed in a place in Sydney whose ugliness possessed the fascination created by tarantulas or giant, bird-eating spiders. You didn’t want to go anywhere near it; but you couldn’t resist discovering what was within. It was at the intersection of two six-lane roads. A huge neon sign advertising a car company sat on its roof. Night-time neon belied the dinginess within.

My room faced the intersection. Traffic noise raged almost constantly, the potential for irritability maximized by constant changes in the noise caused by traffic lights at the intersection that made the cars stop and start. Honking horns, whining tires and roaring engines blared for about 20 hours a day. Sometimes I heard a car hitting the brakes, the screeching tantalizing as I waited for the result. Usually I wasn’t disappointed. About five times cars ended in strange positions hanging over the low wall that rimmed a fountain in the centre of that agitating ugliness. Usually the tires were still spinning. My laughter would have been audible through my room’s thin walls. Four times that low, fountain wall had to be repaired.

I was there because I was only going to be in Sydney for three months and it was conveniently located near where I was working and it was the cheapest place in the area. It attracted the desperate and the insane. Someone dressed as Sherlock Holmes wandered around the corridors “smoking” a pipe he never lit. Deep in contemplation, he never said a word. Solving the mysteries transpiring inside his head, he didn’t seem to notice you if you passed him.

The woman who ran the place was as unpretentious and as sincere as was humanly possible. Her door was always open. Usually she sat on a chair watching a small TV. Every time I paid my weekly rent she would rise and come to the door in a nightgown, her hair in blue and pink rollers, a cigarette hanging from her mouth. She looked stripped of all delusions about the future — the present good enough for her. She was tall and solid. Her shorter husband had a hairy chest, his pale skin highlighting the blackness of his chest hair. He did odd jobs around the building. I realized he was living in what for him was paradise. He was with one of the few women who would have had him and he seemed to want that woman above all others. Fortunate people admire ugliness. I had no doubt he adored the way his wife’s vast, round buttocks smashed against her flimsy nightgown when she walked, like watching cats fighting in a Hessian bag. Money couldn’t compete with that succulent immensity coming down on your face.

One of the building’s exotic features was its thin, hairless, brown carpets that acted like magnets for attracting stains. Just from the carpets alone you knew in that building that you were surrounded by alcoholics and loners and the attraction this held for me couldn’t be easily explained to those whose curiosity was limited to romantic speculation and luxury.

One of the building’s occupants was called Wes. Wes’s hair seemed waxed to his head. It never moved no matter what he did. His pale skin highlighted his flushed cheeks. One night I stepped on him by accident in the corridor where he had collapsed after a binge. I don’t know who was more surprised by my foot stomping on him in the darkness — me or him. He got up. After staggering a few feet, he vomited, adding to the collection of stains those hairless, brown carpets had acquired. He didn’t say a word, as if being stepped on and vomiting in a corridor were as natural and normal as going out for coffee. I admired people like Wes who took what they got and never complained about what they didn’t have. The floor or his bed satisfied him.

Before going to Sydney I had been asked by the woman I was most interested in at that time to arrange accommodations that we could perhaps share. By coincidence, she was also going to be spending time in Sydney that summer. Because I was naive enough then to believe that women placed character above all else, I assumed she’d be enthralled by a little unexpected adventure. When she saw the place her sudden, stony eyes ejected glints of shock. I realized her request to arrange accommodation had really been an instruction and that her imagination had produced a vision of me somehow staying cheaply for a limited time in a place overlooking the yacht-infested expanse of blue-water Watson’s Bay.

“How can you stay here?” she asked.

I had disappointed her material ambitions. Having little in common with most people from what could be described as a philosophical point of view, I often had to find excuses to avoid revealing the real explanations for my behaviour that were beyond the normal range of contemplation.

“Cheap and near work,” I replied.

I clearly hadn’t realized I was supposed to have arranged accommodations that would suit her. My motives were childish and irrelevant.

After 20 minutes of conversation about the pleasantries of sleeping at the intersection of two six-lane highways where silence was a dream and the occupants ranged from alcoholics to prostitutes to illegal immigrants, she said: “I have to make a phone call.”

Fifteen minutes later, a well-groomed chap wearing black leather, his perfectly clipped follicles like a wig made from satin and silk, came to collect her.

Sitting on this guy’s Yamaha 6,950,000, or whatever it was, she said: “I’ll ring you soon.”

Her lovely bottom was perched above spokes that glittered like diamonds.

During the rest of her stay in Sydney that summer she never rang me, her curiosity limited to luxury. She married the motorcyclist whose IBM job enabled a lifestyle that someone like Wes would not have bothered to have even dreamed about.

Years later she visited me in London where I was living in luxury. Only I had earned it. She was still married to the ex-motorcyclist. Having three kids had stopped her from divorcing. When passion disappeared, there was nothing left to sustain the marriage other than giving the children easy access to their parents. That was what she said. The real story was that she was financially dependent upon the man whose spokes had glittered like diamonds. She wasn’t working: time spent taking the kids to the park, pushing prams with other mothers, excitement gone, days dull without the adventure she believed she deserved. A savage lowering of living standards would have taken place had she left her husband.

Her sense of adventure was limited, more limited than she believed; hence her life had ended up limited and when she said: “I should have gone out with you instead,” I thought, it wouldn’t have lasted.

Her stony, agitated eyes in that now demolished building in Sydney should have made me realize exactly what she was like. Information is always there in the small details.

I smiled as I recalled her rushing past Sherlock on her way to Watson’s. Sherlock was a lot more interesting for me.

 

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