Cassiopeia (opening chapter)
I guess I’ll start by telling you how I met my husband.
Truth be told, I don’t know where to start. I’m not much of a writer, even though I’ve been teaching English at the private school the last few years. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to read about this at all, let alone know which particular flotsam and jetsam I should exhume first. I suppose there’s an element of morbid curiosity in your reading of this, and an element of wound-opening in my writing it.
When I was twenty-two and fresh out of university, I moved north to Bowen -- smack-bang in the middle of nowhere -- to secure a permanent teaching job at the state school. I taught a class of thirty interchangeable six-year-olds whom I considered to be exemplary children of simple country-folk parents. I’d meet the Mums (and the odd Dad) during pick-up and drop-off, and everyone was a welder, boiler-maker, hairdresser, diesel-fitter, mechanic, or bricklayer by trade. One little boy – I think his name was Harold – had a mother who was a registered nurse, which I found funny because he was a chronic spreader of head-lice.
Anyway, a colleague of mine, Robyn -- another fresh-faced teacher who’d reluctantly moved from the city – took me to the pub one Friday night late in the semester. We sat by the bar in a sea of men wearing dusty orange high-vis tops, both of us feeling especially out of place. Robyn sipped from her glass of non-descript dry white and turned to me.
“See anyone interesting?”
I could barely see anyone at all, truth be told. My mind tends to register homogenous groups of people as a single identity, like we were at the pub alongside some monstrous hydra. It wasn’t until Alan emerged across the room, cigarette tucked behind his ear and reqisite high-vis vest on, laughing mightily at something a companion of his said. He was my age, I’d later learn, but he looked older on account of his defined upper-body and angular face. He was handsome, but that wasn’t it. He was the only guy at the bar who seemed like he might have a relatively complex inner life. My snobbery would be my undoing.
“Him,” I pointed, and Robyn smiled.
“His friend’s alright, too. Let’s bum a smoke off them in the beer garden.”
I’d started smoking on account of Robyn. I’d avoided it all through high school and university, not even a drunken social puff or teenaged experimentation, only to acquiesce to her on one of our first evenings out in the new town. I hadn’t quite figured her out yet and I’d felt, maybe for the first time, alone and unmoored in my new surroundings. I hadn’t wanted to squander my only budding friendship in Bowen by seeming like a killjoy, so I’d taken a drag from her cheap cigarette one summery evening outside a different but near-identical pub. In the months since, I’d come to appreciate the dizzying jolt of nicotine when drunk, and on some occasions found myself yearning for a cigarette after my coffee in the morning, a desire I had to consciously quash.
So we headed out to the muggy and crowded beer garden, following Alan and his mob, and I watched Robyn approach them fearlessly. I hung back, cowed. I always a felt a little cowed around her. She was a kindergarten teacher but radiated a rebellious and youthful edge; I was merely wearing a sun dress.
“Your mate – does she want one too?” Alan looked at me, holding out a cigarette. I stepped closer, taking it from him. He lit it for me.
“Hi,” I said, exhaling a cloud of smoke, feeling stupid. I looked over to Robyn, who was talking to one of Alan’s friends. She didn’t look back to me.
“Hey. I’m Alan.”
“Olive, huh?” He exhaled purposefully, directing smoke away from my face. It was a breezeless night, and the smoke hung around for a moment, like an apparition.
“Yeah. It’s an old-fashioned name”.
He sized me me up with flinty blue eyes.
“You’re a teacher?”
“Um – yes? Did Robyn tell you that or something?”
“No. It’s just a good guess.” He grinned.
“Yeah. Y’know, I can tell you’re not a local – that’s a compliment – and we don’t get tourists ‘round here. So I figured you were some kinda, like, visiting professional. Like a nurse or a doctor.”
“So, why couldn’t I be a nurse or a doctor?”
“Doctor? Nah, too young. Nurse – I mean, yeah, I guess ya coulda been. But I woulda been wrong, wouldn’t I’ve?” he said, stubbing the rest of his smoke onto a lattice wall.
“Hm. And what do you do?”
Alan pointed to the embroidered company name of his vest, some mining conglomerate that ate up the dirt in places like this and spat out coal.
“FIFO diesel fitter out at the mines. We all just got back from a week on,” he said, gesturing to his friend group. I pointed to the man Robyn was talking with, who, like Alan, was a working-class kind of handsome but wasn’t in reflective yellow or covered in grime.
“Oi, that’s Julian. Police recruit. He’s kind of new here, too. Good value, though. For a copper.”
We stood out there and spoke for probably half an hour, Alan and I and Robyn and Julian, aided by wine and beer fetched by Alan at one point. Alan would touch my arm, accidentally at first then more purposefully, several times. I went home with him and Robyn with Alan, and we recounted our respective evenings in whispered tones at work on the following Monday, suddenly feeling filled with possibility. It’s sad, actually, how exciting it was, in those days, to meet someone new.
Robyn’s and I’s lives mirrored each other for the next few years.
We’d get married to the men we met that night, our eventual pregnancies mostly lined up, and we took maternity leave in such a way that we’d both return to full-time work at about the same time. But the similarities would stop there, really. Whereas Julian and Robyn’s marriage would eventually disintegrate into a messy divorce (and although their divorce was predicated on the incident, at least indirectly), mine would be stolen from me by Alan himself, first gradually and then all at once. He’d steal from me violently, in a ball of flames that swallowed up both he and my children, and I’d be left holding the pieces of a life fragmented by choices that only make sense in a disembodied way, like looking down at myself undergoing surgery.
I guess I’m getting ahead of myself.