At 11.32am a piece of toast falls out of the mist and down the length of Meg’s window. It lands on the lawn. Meg makes a note, “Friday, August 18, 11.32am, two slices and a crust. Toasted golden brown.” As an after thought and not without satisfaction she writes, “This is the 100th toast entry.”
Meg puts the notebook away and sips her coffee. She likes to set herself tasks like this, it gives her day a bit of shape. Like the laundry. Every morning she puts it on before settling in to write and at the end of the day she folds it neatly away. When the fighting started Sally used to taunt Meg for sorting the coloureds from the whites. “Laundry apartheid” she called it. Sally hadn’t liked Meg’s folding ritual either, preferring to drape her laundry over the night store in a steaming pile of chaos, just picking off what she needed in the mornings. One hundred days ago Sally walked out taking chaos with her.
Afterwards Meg cut back to part-time at the Gallery and concentrated on her book. At first she worked in the bedroom because she enjoys the burrowing in aspect of writing – the huddle of herself closeted away in a small room, but last week Meg, her computer and Caring for Contemporary New Zealand Art moved into the lounge. Here there is a view of the sea but for the past few days there have been overhead thuddings in the night. Reluctantly (and realising that she used to let Sally do that sort of thing) Meg went upstairs to meet them, the Toastmen – Charles, Milo and Sam.
Clustered in a phalanx at the door they looked out at her standing amidst a clutter of skateboards and shoes. Meg, who knows herself to be stylish and self-assured, felt suddenly like the Minister’s daughter on their case. But the Toastmen were friendly. They suggested a demonstration and Meg followed them inside. Here they each chose a piece of furniture and bounded gleefully into the air. Behind them a vivid purple and orange canvas was propped up against the window, partially blocking the view. Trousers flapping, bony feet askew the Toastmen twisted and spun in a purple and orange haze, narrowly missing the ceiling and thudding to the floor.
“That’s a 360 degree kick flip,” Sam had grinned, “Providing you can land it.”
“Skateboarding,” offered Charles.
“Oh, I see,” said Meg.
And she did see. She could imagine what it must feel like to sail by on a skateboard casually dropping tricks and ollying over the curbs but…
“My bed,” she said, “is just under there,” and she pointed to where Milo and Sam had landed.
“Lucky we didn’t go through eh?”
Instantly a vision of the Toastmen crashing through the ceiling and onto her heirloom counterpane had sprung into Meg’s mind. She would be pinned underneath the three of them, a wad of proof reading in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other, coughing up plaster and struggling like a cast sheep.
“Yes,” Meg laughed, “very lucky,” and she made her own way out – past the shoes, the skateboards and the white plastic toaster sitting on the stove top – past the clothes line and the letterbox, and the sneakers hanging off the overhead wires, past the dairy and the bus stop and the women pushing prams…
Meg walked on down the hill to the park and pushed her grown-up hips into the meagre U of a rubber swing touching her toes to the ground. The swing squeaked and the smooth soles of Meg’s shoes skritched on the gravel. Only a small movement until she forgot about the hip-squeezed feeling and leaned back. Grasping the knobby chain with her hands and bearing the weight of her torso on her arms she arched her back and swung – swooping up over the esplanade wall to the sea-lighthouse-hill-sky. The sun fell into her and Meg’s eyes wrinkled as they snapped at the sharp sparkles. The swing squeaked along singing a silly abandoned song –
Meg and Sally made a house
To last the life long day o
Sally met a man named Mick
& now Meg lives alone o
Eyes half shut Meg swung and swung until she made the smug little wooden houses tumble over the hills-light-wall-sea and into the foaming waves. Ahhhh….Whoosh. And then the most extraordinary thing happened. Meg laughed. She laughed out loud. A big right out loud laugh. An in your face laugh. A “One more of those Miss Carruthers and you’ll be standing in the corridor” – make the teachers hate you sort of laugh.
Meg cradles her warm but empty coffee cup and stares out into the mist. She remembers that laugh. At school Meg Carruthers was the original laughing gnome but these days she has an ordinary play-planes with the plane players laugh. Meg has come to realise that her life, her personality is a tenuous construction. In her mind’s eye she sees it as an airy structure featuring paperclips, and string and whatever else the artist found in his or her pockets that day. Meg’s decision to become a conservator for example was entirely arbitrary, hardly to be expected of a theologian’s daughter growing up in Oamaru. But for an article in the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly, Meg might have lived an entirely different life. Having chosen this one she seeks to make her experiences fit the Gallery image. Suitably selected, arranged and stuck together with reliable adhesive she offers herself back to her colleagues and friends. Meg, the bric-a-brac queen. Meg, stylish with a quiet laugh… Sometimes Meg fears that her bricolage of paper clips and string might break apart, leaving her pointing at a pile of debris like a child – “Gone fell down”.
The mist still hasn’t cleared later in the day when Meg comes home to find a note stuck to her door with red insulation tape. She guesses that the pointy green writing belongs to Sam.
We are sorry for previous disturbances and we will get better but… TONIGHT we are having a party. Come on up for a drink or call us if it gets too noisy.
Charles, Milo and Sam.
Meg goes into the bathroom, tucks the note into the mirror frame and draws herself a bath. It isn’t every day she gets invited to an X-generation / skateboarder / Toastman party. Meg lifts her arms out of the warm water, relaxing her hands so that silver droplets fall back into the bath.
Perhaps I’ll go.
She imagines herself appearing at their door in her exhibition opening clothes – black top, black tabard, black trousers, a little jewellery placed lightly at the throat…
Meg closes her eyes and the Toastmen slip through the ceiling to hover in the moist air. Sam and Milo are the real skateboarders, a double act, small and dexterous and full of cheek. They appear in Meg’s bathroom like brothers in a tale from “The Arabian Nights” – their skateboard transformed into a magic carpet, their hair ornately braided. Meg prefers this to Charles who appears in nothing but his underwear…
By 8pm Meg’s kitchen is vibrating with the sound of the Toastmen’s stereo – David Bowie. She’ll go out.
Down in the city visiting rugby fans storm Courtenay Place – high on the scent of tomorrow’s game. Meg rides their animal tide reluctantly, escapes into a sushi bar and watches small plates of food trundle past her on a conveyor. The little bricks of rice and miniature fillets whisper to her of perfection, balance, design. Meg sighs and selects a brown plate, settling the delicate edges of her chopsticks into the nest of her right hand. After dinner she will walk sedately to the Gallery, breathing small sushi scented clouds. She won’t stay long. She’ll just slip in do the shots and slip away.
Set up on a mannequin the dress appears luminous in the darkened room, like a ghost skin, an empty chrysalide. Meg flicks the lights on. The armour-like bodice is plated with paua shell, painstakingly cut to size and stitched into place; recycled hat brims have been used to shape a waist that supports a wide silk skirt; the feathers, trimming bodice and headpiece, were scavenged from a 1920’s cocktail dress. These are the elements, varied and requiring specialist care that caused Meg to choose the dress for her book. Chapter three, page one hundred and twenty, “The beauty of the whole depends on the care and conservation of the parts.”
As Meg sets up her lights and considers different angles for the shoot, it seems as if the dress is preening itself, cooing, a coquette rustling her petticoats. A tide of pleasurable anticipation permeates the room. The dress chuckles and whispers to Meg –
“Try me. Take me dancing…”
Meg smiles and adjusts the folds of the skirt. It’s not the first time she has felt this pull of possibility. Removing her white gloves Meg stands behind the tripod –
“Snap”, goes the camera.
“Dancing,” says the dress.
The voice, persistent and mocking, reminds Meg of Sally and the borrowings. First they took two big packing cases from the Gallery to make a wardrobe for their room, then they took the zebra light…borrowed for Sally’s thirtieth, and then one at a time and in quick succession, they borrowed the whole of Colin McCahon’s “Moby Dick” series. Sally had a thing about whales –
Snap went the camera
Dancing said the dress
One girl’s gone and
One girl’s left
Meg turns away, yanking at the trigger lead, the Sally voice fills her head…whispering, whispering …and the dress insistent and gorgeous and irresistible. Well, why doesn’t she try it on? Sally would. Meg hiccups into laughter and slips her clothes off as if she were about to jump naked off a summer jetty. Carefully she eases her way into the dress – first the under skirt, then the bodice, finally the skirt and head piece. Closing her eyes she turns toward the mirror imagining herself transformed. And then she is.
David Bowie billows around Meg as she disembarks from her taxi and the air inside smells of smoke and heat and too many student bodies. Sam and Milo just grin and made half-cut gorilla noises at her before turning back to their group of skateboarder acolytes. It’s Charles who comes to greet her –
“Fabulous frock Meg girl.”
Meg can tell he means it and goes with him to admire his paintings. Aside from the purple and orange abstract in the lounge Charles has a landscape on the go and in another corner there is a wire grid for a triptych made entirely out of toast. He got the idea from Maurice Bennett who runs the supermarket in the next suburb.
“He’s doing portraits of people, Marilyn, Elvis, Princess Di.”
“Bricolage” says Meg.
Suddenly Meg who had wondered if she would find anything to say to her youthful neighbours finds herself talking freely and for pleasure, arching sentences and stretching words, putting ideas together at random until she and Charles become fellow artists cruising the edges of the global village selecting things, combining and re-combining them in new ways making intoxicating conversation making their voices rise and fall over their empty glasses ordering the world in the eye of their minds dazzling each other behind glasses full again with brilliance pondering small life mysteries making sounds with their mouths emptying and filling reason up again like a clay pot piggy bank…until wondering stops – “why do people tie their shoelaces together and throw their shoes over the telegraph wires?”
Curled inside the layers of talk, tucked away between words and inside the sound of shared syllables Meg feels the tide change within her – sand and water, shift and return. She feels drawn and a bit after-midnight wobbly but she’s standing in her own place again behind the dress. It’s as if by donning an outer layer of feathers, silk and shell, she’s become the thing she feared most and now withstood it. She is, herself again.
“Something to do with capping isn’t it?” says Charles referring to the shoes which Meg’s forgotten and then –
“Mind if I try your dress?”
Meg looks at him sideways and realises that Charles has been lusting after the dress all night so, despite her reservations, she helps him into her best bra and plenty of tissue paper, their laughter punctuated by gentle crumpling sounds. Eventually she eases the dress down over his padded frame and they smooth the folds into place. Charles is much thinner and taller than Meg. He looks like some fantastic bower bird.
“Thank you,” he says and passes her like a queen on his way out.
Meg persuades him to return the dress eventually but he dances away into the night still wearing her bra. At dawn he appears at her window like a dervish flaunting his tissue paper tits and pushing his tongue up against the glass.
The following weekend Meg goes to Oamaru for a family wedding. She flies back to Wellington on the Monday afternoon. Stopping at the letter box she pulls out a plain envelope with her name on it. Just “MEG” it says in red. There is a $50 bill inside and a note scrawled on the back –
Buy yourself a new bra.
Meg smiles as she remembers Charles and his silly tits but wonders why he doesn’t just give her the money in person. She stops at the upstairs flat. The door is wide open and the grass on the bank has been trimmed. Meg puts her head inside. She can hear a radio and a gentle clinking sound. A painter is working in the far bedroom –
“Hello” she says.
“You must be the lady from downstairs.”
“Yes. Meg. Nice colour.”
Meg walks quietly through all the rooms. The shelves by the fireplace have been emptied and the purple and orange painting is gone. The toaster is gone too. A pocked formica table stands like an island in the middle of the clean kitchen, fallow, bric-a-brac. Meg laughs at the randomness of it all, opens a window and leans out into the sunshine as if she were signaling someone. The envelope flashes white as it drops from her fingers and falls, down the length of the window to land on the lawn.
– Carol Millner
“A Short History of Toast” was first published in Indigo journal.
Carol Millner is a doctoral candidate in Creative Writing at Curtin University. Her poetry, short stories and articles have been published online, as well as in Australian and New Zealand journals. Carol’s first full length poetry collection was shortlisted for the inaugural Dorothy Hewett Award for an Unpublished Manuscript (UWA Press) 2015.