A Stringed Instrument Ch. 10byBramblethorn©
An Anglo-Australian talking about "football" usually means Australian Rules football. Historically in Australia soccer was viewed as a game for middle-European immigrants, sometimes derisively nicknamed "wogball", although it's gradually become more mainstream.
The day after I got back from Sydney, Peter called everybody in the office together for an important announcement.
From my past experience with Peter, "important announcement" almost always translated to "pompous waste of time". A change to our expenses system, or a fatuous motivational speech straight out of whatever trendy management text he'd just read, guaranteed to take at least half an hour. The man liked to hear himself talk.
But this time it was clear that he actually had something big to tell us, because Janelle had brought a bottle of champagne and glasses for everybody. Skipping ten minutes of buildup and ten more of self-congratulation, the part that mattered: we'd won the Redmond Barry contract and Peter would be overseeing the project, with Susan deputised to handle the details.
It was fantastic news for R.J. Churchill, and as Peter popped the cork I was surrounded by excited realtors already planning how to spend the commissions they were expecting to earn. But for me, in the short term, it mostly meant a lot of extra work. I had to build a sales site for the Redmond apartments with different branding to our main website, and set up a fancy 'virtual tour' plugin so buyers could preview the apartments online. Throw in a dozen lesser complications, all on top of my regular work, and it meant a lot of staying late. As March rolled on and the days grew shorter, it became rare that I'd get from work before dark.
At least I wasn't staying back all alone. Susan had plenty on her plate, and most nights she worked later than I did. Occasionally when I got fed up with wrangling our website I'd wander over to her office and we'd chat. One evening, though, it was she who came to my desk. "Yvonne?"
"Yeah? What's up?"
"Do you know how to get a Facebook group taken down?"
"...um, in theory. What's this about?"
She showed me the group: Zara T Is A Tubby Dyke. It had eight members, all smiling-faced girls of around Zara's age.
"Oh, ouch. Her classmates?"
"Yep. I don't know how they even found out. She only told her best friend, and her friend says she didn't tell anybody else, but... now they're not talking. Zara was off school today with 'cramps', poor thing. I don't know what to do."
"Shit. Okay, um, here's what I'd do." I took some screencaps (number one rule of dealing with arseholes, always document everything) and then showed her how to report the page. "I'd take it to the principal, they should be able to talk to the little darlings."
But I had my doubts; real life rarely works out that simply. This time the girls had been stupid, putting their name to it, and no doubt they'd be told off and ordered to make some sort of insincere apology. Next time they'd cover their tracks better.
I said all this on the phone to Phoebe when I got home. I said most of it more than once, because I tend to repeat myself when I've got something stuck on my mind. She listened patiently until I'd let off enough steam for her to get a word in, and then she said: "You can't fix the whole world, love. All you can do is work on your part of it and hope other people will go work on theirs."
"I know. It just bugs me."
"I'm not surprised." A pause. "I miss you, Von."
"Miss you too, love. I'm sorry, I haven't asked you how you've been. Getting in plenty of cello practice?"
"Thirty-five hours this week, plus teaching. One thing about you working late, less incentive for me to get lazy and finish early."
"Well, if you've been that good, I think you should get some sort of reward when I see you next."
"I like the sound of that. What did you have in mind?"
"Oh... a box of chocolates, maybe? A gift card? What would you like, sweetie?"
"You know very well what I'd like. That reminds me. Easter weekend, I'm coming down on the Friday morning, going back Sunday night. You still up for helping at Yaya's?"
"Sure thing. Starting Friday?"
"Yup. I'm staying at Dad's, but I'm taking the Saturday night off, and I'll be at your disposal. Anything you'd like to do?"
"Oh, so many things. Starting with wrapping my arms around you and kissing you... actually, there is one thing I'd really like."
"Would you come to dinner with John and Cat?
"Um. Yes, okay."
I was shocked by how much Yaya had changed since I'd last seen her. In February she'd been tired and crabby, but there'd still been a sharpness about her. Less than two months later she was grey-faced and weary, bone-thin in a new wheelchair, and she barely acknowledged me when I arrived.
Leon was in the front room, and he took me aside to whisper: "She's not good today. She had the chemo Wednesday, usually she's starting to feel better again by now. But tell her she looks well anyway, it'll do her good."
So I did — I doubt she believed me, I'm an awful liar — and then I settled in to exchange pleasantries with Leon while we waited and Hamish made tea. Phoebe and RJ had arrived earlier, but they'd gone out to fetch a few things; not knowing what needed doing, we couldn't start without them, and Yaya was in no state to tell us.
I noticed her grasping a bundle of leaves with her good hand, folding and twisting them. Not having had a religious upbringing, I didn't realise what she was about until Leon took a couple of fronds from the bundle and showed me. "Palm fronds. We make them into crosses for Sunday." It was a simple task, and after watching Leon demonstrate it once I could have done it easily. But Yaya's left arm was still out of action and she kept losing her train of thought, setting the crosses aside half-finished and starting new ones as the old began to unravel.
We made conversation, and I made the mistake of admitting that I worked in tech-support, whereupon Leon started asking me for advice: he wanted to digitise several thousand family photographs, and needed a scanner, and maybe a new computer, and didn't know what to buy. So I wrote down a few things for him to look at and my phone number in case he had more questions. Just as I was on the verge of starting to explain most of the Internet to him, Phoebe and RJ unwittingly came to my rescue, returning with packing supplies and a trailer. As Phoebe caught sight of me I could see relief in her eyes too. We greeted one another as friends, but we hugged very tight, and I whispered "Missed you" before we disengaged.
Once we were settled RJ explained what needed to be done. The plan was to sort through Yaya's belongings, boxing up some for storage and getting rid of anything that wasn't needed. Reading between the lines, he was concerned that she might not be able to go back home after the surgery, and wanted to get things under control while she was still around to say what needed to be kept and what to go.
Of course, that was the bottleneck: with Leon there were four of us helping, and Yaya couldn't provide enough direction to keep us all busy. I spent half an hour on the bathroom, pulling out expired medicines for disposal and amalgamating assorted soaps and lotions into a box, while Phoebe sorted papers in the lounge and separated the junk mail from bills that might need payment.
But most of the work was in boxes of Old Stuff in the bedrooms, and most of the contents required decisions: should this old dress be kept, or donated to charity, or thrown out? Since only Yaya and RJ could make those decisions — and even RJ only sometimes — we found ourself at a loose end when we'd finished those tasks.
"Well, you could do the garage," RJ suggested.
"Good idea," said Phoebe. She turned to me: "Lots of Grandpa's car stuff in there, she won't care what we do with it. And if we can clear some space in the garage, we'll have somewhere to put the packing boxes we don't need inside."
And out in the garage Phoebe and I could talk — albeit cautiously, for RJ and Leon were in and out of the house carrying rubbish to the trailer.
"What do you think?" she asked me as soon as we had the roller door open.
"She's looking pretty sick. Is that the last of the chemo?"
"For now, anyway. Really hope she isn't too fragile for surgery. Yeah, Dad told me she was in a bad way but I wasn't quite prepared for it."
I hugged her, looked around to make sure RJ and Leon weren't about, and kissed her on the cheek. "Expect she'll pick up a bit now the chemo's done, then."
"I hope so." She kissed me back. "Thanks for being here."
"That's what girlfriends are for. So, what needs doing?"
Quite a lot, as it turned out. Yaya had barely ventured into the garage since Achilles died thirty years ago. They'd sold off his car soon after that — Yaya had never learned to drive, RJ already had one of his own — but you probably could've built a new one from the parts he'd left behind.
Most would go out to the trailer, to be sold for scrap. The dealers were closed for Easter, but Leon knew a guy who'd take it if we dropped it off. Along with the parts, there were other things to be sorted: several petrol cans, a couple of mowers long since rusted into uselessness, a big tool board with an assortment of things that might be worth something to the right person, and a lot of grimy cloths and rat-nibbled motoring magazines.
I doubted we'd get much for any of it. With what RJ must be earning in the real-estate business, it was hardly worth his time to drive the trailer to Leon's friend; we might have done better just to give it all away to the first petrolhead willing to come and take it away.
But this wasn't a business proposition. I don't believe in ghosts, but most of us carry a few ancestors around in our heads, and they get cranky if you don't treat them with respect. So it fell to family (and helpers) to sort through Grandpa Karavangelis' belongings. Even if it all ended up at the scrap yard just the same, at least we'd do it properly.
As I filled a plastic tub with nuts and bolts and washers I asked, "Phoebe, do you remember him at all?"
"Maybe. I have a hazy mental image of Helen taking me to see him in hospital and him kissing me on the cheek. But I was so young when he died, I don't know whether it's a real memory or just something I dreamed up to fill in the blanks."
"Speaking of your mother, wasn't she going to be here?"
"Tomorrow. She gets nervous driving in Melbourne, wants to avoid the worst of the holiday traffic."
It took us most of the afternoon to clear out the garage. I'd half-expected to find something to explain why Yaya had been avoiding it for so long. Perhaps a leaky can of arsenic weedkiller, or an ex-war revolver hidden in a drawer? But the most exciting thing we found amidst the dust and grime was in a fruit-box tucked away under a workbench: Grandpa Karavangelis' collection of naughty pictures, hidden under a couple of parts catalogues.
Phoebe slid the box to me. "Hey, 'Von, do you mind checking this one? Some things I don't need to know about my grandpa. But check it, just in case there's something important underneath."
"Sure thing." I started to rummage through the collection.
After a few minutes I picked up one of the magazines, holding it open and staring at the contents. "Wow, I didn't know they were even allowed to publish that stuff."
"What? No, don't tell me, I don't want to know." But she'd stopped what she was doing and was watching from across the garage, looking alarmed.
A few minutes later I picked up a loose photograph and stared at it, frowned, then turned it upside-down. "Oh! It's two nuns! And, um, whatever that is."
"Stop that. You're making it up."
"Yeah, I am."
"Love you too. Nah, it's all pretty tame. Mostly 'eighties Playboys, and these photos... probably forties or fifties? Cute, anyway. And not a one of your grandma."
"Missed his opportunity. She was a stunner, from the family albums I've seen."
"Takes after her granddaughter then."
"Flatterer." She kissed me on the nose. "You know I'm a sucker for compliments."
An hour later, as we carried the last tub-load out to the trailer, I asked, "So, what's the plan for after surgery?"
"Depends on how well her arm heals up. She wants to stay on here. Dad thinks she might need to move in with him or go to an assisted living facility. I've been looking them up, there are some good ones around with lots of Greek folk around her age."
"What do you think?"
"I think Dad's right, but she's not going to accept it unless she tries it her way first. He'll keep Hamish on for now, so it's not like she'll be alone here. Help me with the tarp?"
We fastened a tarpaulin over the trailer, then headed inside to let RJ know it was ready. "Need us to come along for the ride?" asked Phoebe.
"No thank you, Leon and I should be fine. Hamish is taking Mum out for a walk, so you're minding the house."
"Cool, Yvonne and I could do with a shower."
We gave RJ a hand hitching up the trailer. As they drove off I asked Phoebe, "So... when you said 'a shower', did you mean one at a time, or...?"
She squeezed my hand, fingers just as grimy as mine. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"
On our way back in we met Hamish coming out, pushing Yaya in her chair. She managed a drawn sort of smile for Phoebe: "You cleaned out the garage so soon? That's a miracle. Thirty-five years when he was alive, I couldn't make your Pappous clean it up. Did you find his dirty pictures?"
"You knew about them?"
Yaya gave a one-sided shrug. "He's a man, what's there to know? Every man looks at dirty pictures. Even priests." Then she said something in Greek, which Phoebe translated for me afterwards: "This fellow pushing my chair, you think he doesn't look on the computer?" Back to English: "Your daddy used to hide his under the bed."
"Yaya, do we really have to —"
"I don't mind. It's just how God made men, that's all. Now we're going to the park before it's dark."
Alone in the house, Phoebe and I shut the bathroom door behind us and shed our clothes. It wasn't very sexy; we were grimed with a mix of oil and dust, and she had cobwebs in her hair. I spent a couple of minutes slathering myself with soap and scrubbing under my nails before I felt Phoebe's hand on my shoulder.
"Be a darling and help with my hair, would you?"
I slipped behind her and squirted something coconut-scented into my hand, then started working it into her hair. The air was cold against wet skin, so we stood close together to keep under the hot water: my hips against her butt, my breasts squashed against her back, and her long black curls all over the place. I tugged them out from between us and draped them over her shoulders to either side — ostensibly so I could get at them with the shampoo, mostly to enjoy the feel of her skin against me — and kept on going.
"Mmm, nice." She reached back behind me and locked her arms around my waist, trapping me against her. "Do go on."
I vanquished a couple of tangles and started massaging the shampoo into her scalp. "By the time you get out you're going to smell like a coconut meringue."
"Is that good?"
I leant in close. "I love coconut meringues. Baked with little pointy peaks." I slipped one hand under her arm, fingers gliding around to graze her nipple. "I run my tongue over the peaks to feel how pointy they are."
"And then?" Her fingers were digging into my back.
"Then I suck them into my mouth and crunch them and the world explodes into sugar."
"Mmm." She let go of me and twisted around, kissing me fiercely on the mouth. "Show me."
So I slid down her body, fingers leading the way and lips following, teasing her nipples into firmness and then testing their shape with my tongue as the water streamed down my face. My left hand palmed her other breast; my right followed the water down, carried by the rivulets to the tributary at her hip, and down into the valley between her thighs.
I teased her with my fingers as my lips pressed around her nipple in a lower-case 'o', tongue flickering against the tip. She had her hands in my hair now, stroking me, pulling me closer, but I felt her gasp as my fingertips began to probe. "Easy, love!" For the soap had washed away most of her natural lubrication, leaving her squeaky clean — not always a good thing.
So I took it slowly, pressing and retreating and pressing again, just a little further each time, until the warmth of the water began to give way to the heat of her body. She started to push back, hips rocking against my hand, and I let her set the pace as she slowly-slowly-slowly took my fingers inside her in a series of tiny gasps and thrusts and grunts, hands clenching in my hair.
"So nice," she whispered, as my fingers curled toward my thumb, which now rested just behind her clit. "Ahh!" For as I stroked her G-spot, and my thumb slid over her nub, I bit down on her nipple as if it were a meringue. I felt her muscles fluttering around my fingers and I followed her timing, rubbing my thumb back over her clit every time her body tensed, running my other hand down her back to stroke her arse.
"Oh, you witch, how do you... oh!" As she spoke, I'd probed her nipple with my tongue, pushing it back against the teeth that held it captive even as I bit down harder. "Ow!" And then as the sudden pain ran through her body I stroked again with my fingers, blending it with a pulse of pleasure, licking and biting and squeezing and pinching until the sensations blended together and the flutters around my fingers became ripples and the ripples became spasms and the pricking of my thumbnail against her clit sent her into sobbing climax: "Oh, oh, oh, oh!"
The water was still running as I withdrew, and kissed her softly on the breast — the toothmarks might be visible for a day or two — and straightened so I could kiss her on the cheek and cradle her in my arms.
"Love you, sweetie."
"Mmm." She leaned into my arms. "I don't remember being that much of a masochist."
"Maybe you just have a natural talent for it."
"Mmm. Hey, we should probably get dressed before somebody comes home."
"Spoilsport." I turned off the taps and stepped out of the shower. "So what are you doing tonight? I don't feel like waiting until tomorrow for my turn."
"Sorry, babe, you're going to have to. I'm booked for dinner with Dad and some old friends of the family. Already told him I'm hanging out with you tomorrow, so it'd look fishy if I begged off tonight as well."
This is why I hate closets. But I didn't say it. "Well, tomorrow then." I finished towelling myself off and helped her dry her hair. "Make sure you get an early night tonight, honey. You'll want to be rested tomorrow."
I took my own advice and retired to bed at nine o'clock, after a brief exchange of text messages:
Going to bed, goodnight, I love you - Y
Love you too, wish you were here... No, it's horrendously dull, wish I was there - P
When I arrived on Saturday there was an unfamiliar car parked outside behind RJ's. It was a dusty old Subaru station-wagon, heavily stickered with things like "Save Australia's Wild Places," "I Heart The Woodford Folk Festival", and "No To Uranium Mining". I walked past it, through the gate.
"Hi! Are you Phoebe's friend? I'm Helen!"
I jumped. I'd walked right past her without noticing, for she was down on her knees among the tomato vines. She had a plastic ice-cream tub beside her, half-filled with tomatoes and a couple of lemons. "Give me a hand with these?"
"Um, sure." I knelt down beside her to see what she was doing. The garden hadn't been tended in weeks — probably not since our working bee in February — and the vines were heavy with unpicked tomatoes. Many had fallen and were rotting on the ground; others had been attacked by bugs small enough to get through the netting. But some were salvageable, if a little shrivelled, and Helen was collecting them up.