I took the folder of treasured photographs from under my pillow. It was held together by a sticky rubber band which broke as I opened the pack. Examining them one at a time, I placed the photos face down on the bed like a deck of cards.
There were two piles – one to keep and one for discards. I was planning to give most of them to my son, Charlie, who was turning twenty-one in the next week. I held the last photo in my hand and wept silently, wiping the teardrops off the picture with the back of my hand. Memories took me back to a time of confusion and loss.
This is the one photograph of me taken in my whole life that I feel shows the authentic me. It was 1975, and I was twenty-nine.
In the photo, I am sitting up against a sprawling eucalypt in the Watagan State Forest, not far from home. I’m hugging my knees, hiding my pregnancy. The look on my face is totally blank. I’m not smiling or frowning. I look to be meditating in peace.
I’m wearing the midi-length, blue halter-neck dress with the hand-made crocheted top that I had worn on the first date with my fiancé, Lenny.
Lenny had said, “Sarah, the blue in your dress makes your eyes shine.”
He called me Blue ever after – transposing his choice of name for me over my own and taking some of my identity along with it. My eyes stopped shining a long time ago.
Lenny had taken this photo without me knowing. I must have been so lost in my thoughts that I didn’t notice. This photograph snatched and ensnared my image, in that tiny space in time where one feeling passes and another comes. I was surprised to see it when the set was developed. All the others in the series I had taken myself and I took great pride and pleasure in my hobby.
We were at the first joint picnic where his family and friends met mine, just weeks before we married. My best friend Mary was there, with her husband Don. Laughter carried in the still air. It was cool under the shelter of the arching branches of the tree and small breezes played with the leaves. The air was full of scents and I sat with my eyes shut, trying to find their source. This place was a paradise to me, full of the wildlife and plants that I loved to photograph.
A shrill avian cry took my attention and I sat watching a pair of lorikeets performing a ritualized mating dance on a branch of bottlebrush. The birds swayed toward each other, and gently touched beaks, all the while twittering their love song. From the corner of my eye I saw the undergrowth move and the startled birds flew off in a flurry.
In the flickering sunlight I saw Mary and Lenny standing close together behind the shrubs. Click, my mind took a picture. They moved behind a stand of lilly-pillies, full of sparkly pink fruit, framing them as if it were a movie set. My view was blocked. That they were together face-to-face was clear, but how close and what was happening was not apparent to me. I stretched my neck to catch sight of them. I glimpsed them again. Click. Perhaps they kissed. Click. They stepped apart. Perhaps they argued. Click. It was over and they walked back to the others in our group.
The idea of betrayal came from these little clues and was sending me crazy. I felt an intense jealousy that I’d never felt before. I remember thinking perhaps Mary and Lenny were having a secret affair, but we had only been engaged a few weeks so I doubted that could be true. I was very moody with the pregnancy, and found myself upset over the simplest things, over-reacting and catastrophising any trouble that came my way. My thoughts went back and forth in this way, and I concentrated on not crying.
As my mind drifted I imagined killing Lennie, of stabbing him in the heart, a sharp deviant thought that frightened me so much I caught myself gasping out loud. That broke my reverie. I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.
I was trying to maintain control over my emotions by telling myself to calm down, and trying to settle my breathing. I felt my hot breath fill my lungs and threaten to explode in a spew of poisonous gas. Inside my chest I endured a sensation, volcano-like, full of anger and fear that threatened to expose Lenny’s crime. Well, what I thought was his crime.
You see, in that peaceful place under the shady angophora, I began thinking about the great commitment I was making to Lennie with the baby, and the marriage. I was thinking about how I would cope if he left me for Mary. I wondered how I would manage to bring up the baby on my own. I worried about how I would get through life without my best friend. But I kept the emotion from my face as a kind of self-protection. Even as I experienced the raft of emotions I didn’t want to show my insecurity.
Mary and I had worked together for ten years. We were like sisters. It was Mary who introduced me to Lenny. Mary and I, still in our nurse’s uniforms, were leaving work after a shift in Accident and Emergency at The Royal.
“Meet Dr Lenny Drew. He’s just back from qualifying in Paediatrics in Sydney. Lenny and I have always been good mates,” Mary said.
Lenny was cheerful and optimistic, and sold me a line about equality and fair play. He cared about details and I quite liked that he did. His being fifteen years older than me didn’t pose a problem. I liked his maturity. It was a refreshing change from some of the men my own age that I had dated.
“I’m not asking you to marry me just because you’re pregnant!” Lenny called. “I’d want to marry you anyway.”
He was knocking on my door, drawing attention to himself by throwing red and white carnations up and down the street. This public display was uncharacteristic of him, and embarrassing to me.
“I love you, of course I do,” he said in a quieter voice. “Please marry me?” he said, when I eventually opened the door.
Mary and Don came over that night and congratulated us. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I hadn’t made the decision myself. I felt the universe was conspiring to make this happen, all elements falling into place like letters on a scrabble board, spelling out my future in words not my own.
Married life with Lenny was a kind of death to me. According to his life-plan there were rules to be followed. He had a way of speaking that made everything sound organized.
“You will not return to work until our baby has grown,” he said.
This meant I would no longer be a well-paid, respected professional.
“Your money is my money,” he said.
I had accumulated a very nice nest egg, which was transferred into his account.
“You will sell your car,” he said.
My car was sold off as I didn’t need to drive to work anymore. My furniture was thrown out because his was of better quality and gave a more prestigious impression when I prepared dinner parties and cocktail evenings for his colleagues.
Lenny decided what I wore to the dinners. He insisted I wear the blue dress for our first anniversary dinner. It was autumn, and even with the little jacket I shivered. Lenny simply said, “You will wear The Blue Dress.” And I did. In my mind I capitalised the words.
The years I spent studying had become like food for me – building my knowledge had been feeding my brain and now I was starving. Lenny had spent even more years at university. Now he travelled and gave the opening address at the seminars, and now he gave the lectures. More often he was travelling interstate over several days. I was just a wife and mother, keeping my Stepford home.
I was isolated from the friends I had made at work, but Mary and I remained close. She would tell me how she and Don had been arguing, and ask to stay here for a few days. At times she would stay when Lenny was away over night, and be there for breakfast on his return. Sometimes she would do a roster of night duties, when I wouldn’t see her for a while. She was the first to be invited for Lenny’s dinner parties. They made a big deal about their long running friendship. Mary would say that she and Lenny were like family.
The suspicion that something was going on between Lenny and Mary continued to niggle at me. At times I thought they may have held a goodbye kiss on the cheek too long. Or I thought he laid his hand across her hand for too long, gently sliding it to release it, when passing something across the table at dinner. I caught a look on Mary’s face on occasion, a softer expression than usual, when she spoke with him.
I started to look more closely for a sign of his cheating. Then I found it. He kept a diary in his inner jacket pocket. Stuck between the pages was a hand written note from Mary on Apollo Motel stationary. The same motel Lenny had stayed at last week.
The note said, “Meet Room 202.” If I didn’t know it was Mary’s writing, I would have dismissed it as something to do with his work. She had told me she was on nights at work all last week.
I wondered then how many other times they had met up. I had been right that first day when I saw them behind the bushes. They were having an affair. But I couldn’t make sense of it. Why would they go through the process of introducing me to Lenny, of us getting married, of him having the baby with me? Why not simply be together?
My predicament now was to weigh up my unhappy marriage and my one good (I had thought) friend, against being a single mother with no job or emotional support. I figured Lenny would keep his house if I left him. He’d probably get custody of Charlie, who was only beginning to walk. A lot of men did keep the children in those days before the Family Court. Lenny was wealthy and could afford a solicitor but I couldn’t. I was trapped.
I decide to wait it out. I would let them make the next move. I had been really unhappy for such a long time. It seemed an easy thing just to carry on as before. Pretending to Mary that everything was as usual was surprisingly easy. Ever since Charlie had been born I walked around as if in a fog. I was probably depressed, but I didn’t know there was a name for how I felt. Mary was used to me being quiet, of my waiting for her to initiate conversation.
Lenny and I were together for Charlie’s first birthday. We set up a picnic in our backyard. Mary wasn’t there. She said she had to work. I remember how excited Charlie was to see the candle burning. Lenny lit it over and over again until it was a small stub that burned his fingers. Lenny took the photos that day. He called my camera his own.
This was the day Lenny chose to tell me he was going to divorce me. He and Mary would live together here in Lenny’s house. I was to find a rental home somewhere. I was to leave Charlie. I was to find some work. I was to go today.
I didn’t understand the urgency. I told him I knew about their affair, so what had changed? Didn’t I keep house well? Didn’t I impress his work colleagues? Didn’t I love Charlie with every fibre in my body? Why now?
Lenny took Charlie from my arms. He stood over me. Then he explained in his sombre ABC Radio voice why he had chosen today to tell me it was over.
Mary was to become extremely wealthy with an inherited portfolio of stocks and shares due for settlement on her thirtieth birthday, but only if she remained married to Don. If Lenny and Mary had declared their love for each other sooner she would have forfeited the money.
While I thought Lenny had his own funds, he had been living on my savings, and Mary had been borrowing against her future settlement. He and Mary had been lovers for a long time before I met him.
Worst of all, they had set me up as his love interest to throw Don’s suspicions off. My being pregnant had surprised them but they managed to keep their plan on track.
“I hope she breaks your heart,” I spat at him.
I went inside to pack. I carefully laid out the blue dress across the side of the bed where I used to sleep. I turned over a wedding photo from the dresser and left my wedding ring beside it.
He had broken every promise he ever made to me. If love means wanting the other person to be happy, even if you can’t be with them, then it wasn’t love I felt for Lenny. It was a darker, dirtier emotion. It was more like sorrow, so deep there was no coming back from it.
I took the largest knife from the block on the kitchen bench and walked calmly outside. It was as if my murderous rehearsal in the Watagan Forest had prepared me for what was to come. I simply walked up to Lenny and slipped the knife into his chest, killing him. With the single stab of the knife I assuaged my pain and hurt and anger. My breath was cool again.
So you see, in this photo with no expression on my face, I was hiding my plans for revenge. Knowing I had the ability to do this has given me enormous courage and kept me safe here in Silverwater Women’s Correctional Centre, where I have spent the last twenty years. I have completed a course in photography and so have an employment opportunity when I am free. I have my own camera now, and I will know every picture taken by it.
Mary visits every week, and very soon Mary and I will be together again. I have been making plans for her. Just like Lenny, she too won’t be able to read the expression on my face.
Victoria June Norton’s Facebook profile: www.facebook.com/vicki.norton.41
The Australian Literature Review