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Short story By: Philip Roberts
Literary fiction

The fourth in my Smith/Mayron/Bennett/Unemploment series. This story focuses mainly on Chris's stepmother, Norma Smith.

Submitted:Dec 21, 2010    Reads: 25    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

"I think this must be the way," said Debbie Williams, leading the other two women down the thin corridor.
The three women had stood in the large reception area for ten minutes waiting for someone to help them, before deciding to wander off by themselves.
The two areas were in stark contrast to each other. The reception area looked like an American television caricature of a football team's changing room: the walls covered from floor to ceiling with plaques and pendants. The much smaller corridor, on the other hands was too thin for two people to stand side by side, and both walls were painted lemon yellow and covered from floor to ceiling in ultra-modern frescos, collages and abstract paintings. Every few metres along the wall were inlaid small niches to hold small sculptures, some in the traditional vein, others looking like nothing more than handfuls of clay thrown together then toasted in a kiln.
At the entrance to the corridor, near the reception area, hung a black plaque with a yellow arrow pointing down the corridor. It was this that had led Debbie to make her remark.
"How do you know?" asked the third woman, "It might be just another weirdo painting."
Norma laughed, remembering her one other expedition into a place of higher learning. Norma, her husband, Jack, Jack's brother, Kevin Smith, and Kevin's wife, Pauline, had attended a college arts display, which included a statuette by Kevin and Pauline's daughter, Jamie. Kevin Smith had shocked the campus intelligentsia by referring to one of the displays as, "A classic example of neo-surrealistic bullshit," to the chagrin of Pauline Smith (who considered herself a minor authority on modern art), since none of them had ever been invited back to the college.
Norma hoped things would get off to a more auspicious beginning this time.
The three women walked for ten minutes, rounding three corners, before reaching a door. Norma wondered whether the entire labyrinth-like walk had been constructed solely to ensure that the college had enough wall space to cope with the creations of all of the budding young artists who passed through the school? Or whether it was an example of what the television tourist companies referred to as a scenic walk?
They tried the door, which was locked, and so they continued along the walk for a few more minutes until they reached a second door, which was also locked, but which had a small note pinned up reading, "Applicants for the TAFE leather craft class, please continue on to the next door."
"I was going to suggest that, myself," said Debbie, not to be outdone by any mere note.
At last the three women found the craft room, which was a large open room, with racks of small tools around the four walls, and rows of knee-high wooden work benches in the centre of the room. Nearly seventy jeans-clad women, aged from sixteen to eighty, worked away at the benches, trying to create the next best thing to Gucci for a fraction of the cost of the real thing.
Norma could not help thinking that most of the women seemed more intent upon killing the leather they handled, than upon crafting it into anything useful. Many of them appeared to be doing their level beat to knead the leather, rather than anything else. "Perhaps the poor dears think they're still in their kitchens at homes kneading dough for bread?" thought Norma. She was tempted to shout out to them, "Don't roll it any more, you won't get it to rise any more than it will already!"
On the right-hand side of the door stood a small reception table, just within the craft room.
A couple of metres away from the table, a tall, emaciated girl leant with her back against the wall, gazing into the room, while talking into the receiver of a telephone that hung upon the wall. The tall girl was chewing gum, like a cow chewing cud, while she talked. Norma wondered how the person on the other end could understand a word that the girl said.
After half of a minute, the tall girl looked around and noticed the three women standing together just inside the room.
"Yeah?" asked the girl.
"We were interested in joining your leather work class," said Debbie.
"What? All of you?" asked the girl, making it sound as though there were fifty women standing there, instead of three.
The third woman turned to see if anyone else had followed them down the corridor, and Norma thought, "No, two of us just came for the scenic walk."
Debbie said, "Yes all three of us."
"Could you hang on for a minute?" the girl said into the receiver. She left the receiver dangling down and went over to the reception table.
Bending down, the girl opened a drawer under the table, and pulled three forms from the drawer. She handed a form to each of the three women and said, "You've got four choices. You can join up for a course of ten lessons, fifteen lessons, twenty lessons, or thirty lessons."
"We didn't actually want to sign up for a course," said Norma. "We were hoping to be able to just come along on a casual basis, and pay at the door."
"Oh," said the tall girl. She collected the forms back from the three women, returned the forms to the drawer, and then went back over to the telephone. She picked up the receiver, turned her back upon the women, and went back on with her conversation.
The three women exchanged nonplussed glances for a few seconds, and then Debbie called out to the girl. "Excuse me! But we'd still like to join your leather work class."
"Why don't you make up your minds?" demanded the girl, looking back over her shoulder. Into the receiver she said, "Would you hold on again?" she dropped the receiver before the person had a chance to say yes or no.
The girl walked back to the reception and handed the three forms out again. She said, "Right, you've got four choices. You can join up for a course of ten lessons...."
* * *
Collecting the forms from the three women again, the tall girl slowly looked around the craft room for a few seconds, After what seemed like minutes to Norma, the girl said to Debbie, "Right you can go and start working over there of pointing toward a space at a bench, on the left-hand side, near the back of the room, "You," she said to Norma, "can go and start working over there," pointing toward a bench on the right, at the back of the room. "And you," she said to the third woman, "can go and start working over there." She pointed toward a bench at the front of the workroom.
There were exactly three dozen benches in the room, laid out in six rows by six columns, with two women to each bench, so there would be at least four benches between any two of the three women.
"We're sort of together," pointed out Debbie.
"We were hoping to be able to work together. Either on the same bench, or at least adjoining benches," explained Norma.
"Look," said the girl. She sighed to herself and thought, "Why do I always land up with the trouble makers?" Out loud she said, "The class started nearly a quarter of an hour ago. It's strictly first come catch as catch can, so if you want to hold hands while you work, or whatever, next time try to get here on time!"
Seeing she had cowered the three women into submission, the tall girl continued in a more cheerful tone, "But for now, you can go and start working over there...."
* * *
Looking around at the array of women bashing leather, Norma was dismayed to see there was no indication that they were going to be given any instructions.
She looked across toward Debbie, who stood helplessly by her own bench. Debbie shrugged, picked up a small mallet, and began to beat-up a piece of cowhide. "I'll have to remember to thank her for loaning me the money to enrol," thought Norma. When Debbie had offered to lend Norma the money, neither of them had reckoned upon having to pay fifty dollars up front for a ten-week course. The $150 outlay, for the three women, would put a great strain upon Debbie's chequebook balance.
Norma looked over toward the front of the room, for the umpteenth time, and saw that the teenage girl was still chatting away on the telephone. "At this rate," thought Norma, "we'll get nothing at all done in the first hour."
She looked toward Debbie again, then, unable to bring herself to kill defenceless leather without at least the pretence of knowing what she was doing, Norma turned to face the third woman. Pat Patterson was every heterosexual man's dream come true: tall, beautiful with flaming red hair, and the traditional hourglass figure -- which might be out of fashion in the opinion of women, but would never be out of fashion in the opinion of men. "And not a completely brainless twit either," thought Norma. When they had first been introduced by Debbie' Norma had asked incredulously "Patricia Patterson?" Pat had replied, "Don't blame met It was my parents who picked it out, I was too young to have a say in the matter at the time."
Norma supposed that Pat would be about forty-eight or fifty. She had broached the subject earlier, without success. When Debbie had, for the umpteenth time, suggested that Norma go to work for her, Norma had passed the offer onto Pat, who had earlier mentioned that she was looking around for work. "Oh, I would find working in a laundry all day much too boring!" Pat had insisted. "Debbie always tells me that I'm old enough to do the mature thing and settle for a boring, but steady job," Norma had replied. "Surely you can't be more than a few years younger than I am?" When Pat had stared, seemingly from horror at the suggestion, Norma had hurried to add, "I'm not as old as I look. Really."
Norma looked around at the mallet-wielding women, who were panting and gasping so hard that it sounded as though they were doing aerobic exercises rather than murdering leather.
"Now I know why it's called aerobics," thought Norma, "because it leaves you gasping for air."
Returning her attention to the redhead, Norma found herself wondering what Pat's relationship with Debbie really was. Jack had always insisted that Debbie Williams was a lesbian, but then, Jack was part of the old vanguard who would always equate the Women's Liberation Movement with lesbianism. "Radical Bull-Dykes" as Jack liked to call Women's Libbers.
In the thirty-two years that Norma had known Debbie, Debbie had never made any sort of sexual play for Norma. "But that doesn't prove anything," thought Norma. "I suppose lesbians can have platonic relationships with other women, the same way that a heterosexual man doesn't necessarily jump into bed with every woman he ever knows." Although not unattractive, Norma knew that she was not in Patricia Patterson's league. Norma had never heard of Debbie dating men and Norma thought that if she had been a lesbian, the luscious Pat Patterson would be the woman that she would like to go to bed with.
Blushing in shock at her own thoughts, Norma looked back to the young girl who was still talking into the telephone.
"Yeah, well I don't know," said the teenage girl as Norma walked up behind her. "Not after the last time, I won't. What do you take me for? Yeah I know, whatever you can get!"
"Excuse me," said Norma, tapping the girl on the left shoulder. "Can I have a word with you, please?"
"Can't you see I'm on the phone?" demanded the girl.
"For the last three-quarters of an hour!" said Norma.
"The college pays for the phone bill, not me," explained the girl. "So who's counting the minutes?"
"I am," said Norma. "I didn't pay my money just to stand around while you prattle away on the phone!"
"So who's making you? Why don't you go over to your bench and beat up on some poor unsuspecting cowhide, the same as the rest of them are doing? Just be sure to get in a clean kill, leather can turn nasty when it's wounded."
"Well, for one thing, I don't know the first thing about leather work."
"So what's to know?" asked the girl. "You take up some leather in one hand, and you take a wooden hammer in the other hand, then while the leather has its back turned to you, you beat its brains in with the hammer...I means what do you expect for a lousy five bucks a week? Lessons or something?"
"Quite frankly, yes," said Norma.
"Well, I'm afraid that you're out of luck, because I don't know any more about leather work than you do," admitted the girl.
"What?" asked Norma, genuinely shocked. "Then how are you supposed to teach us anything?"
"I'm not, I'm supposed to keep an eye on you to make sure that you don't flog any of the expensive tools. I mean, have you ever checked to see what leatherwork tools go for at McEwans these days? It's bloody murder, and the hardware stores if anything, are even worse.
"If the school thought that it could trust you lot not to flog anything they wouldn't be paying me to turn up here every week, let alone paying out real money for a trained leather work instructor to teach you."
"But there must be seventy women here," said Norma, doing a quick calculations. "At five dollars each, that's $350 you get per session. Surely you can afford the cost of a skilled instructor, out of that?"
"Not me," corrected the teenage girl. "I only get a crummy ten bucks, the college gets the rest of it."
"You mean to tell me that you actually get paid ten dollars each week, just to talk on the phone for an hour?" asked Norma.
"No, I've already told you, I got paid to make sure that you lot don't flog any of the equipment."
"And what about us?
"What about you?"
"What are we supposed to do for an hour each week, if you aren't going to teach us anything?" demanded Norma.
"Look, what's the beef?" asked the girl. "It's not as though you get to keep anything that you make anyway."
"We don't?" asked Norma, shocked.
"Not unless you want to pay for it. Otherwise the school sells anything good you make, at one of its various fund raising stalls. So what's the point in knocking yourself out, just to make money for those bastards?"
"But what is the point of me just bashing defenceless leather with a mallet week after week?"
"Well, I tell you what, don't look at it as a pointless waste of time, look at it as an athletic workout. The harder you bash leather, the more sweat you build up, and the more sweat you build up...."
"The more we smell," Norma finished for here.
"No! The more sweat you build ups the more weight you burn off," said the girl, "If you like, you can think of it as a TAFE-sponsored Gloria Marshall weight reduction course in leather."
"Sounds kinky to me," said Norma.
"And the five bucks you pay here is probably less than Gloria Marshall charges per lesson."
"Except that Gloria Marshall would have all sorts of weight reducing machines, that you don't have!"
"That's true," admitted the girl. "But we do have all kinds of expensive leather work tools."
"Remind me to flog some when I leave!" said Norma.
"And let's face it," said the girl, "you could stand to lose a few kilos."
"At least I'm not a stick figure woman!" said Norma, "Frankly, you could stand to gain about twenty kilos, just to look like a human being, instead of a scarecrow!"
"Well, that's about what you need to lose," said the girl. "So how much will you take for them?"
While the teenage girl giggled at her own joke, Norma conceded defeat and returned to her bench.
Speaking into the telephone receiver, the girl said, "Are you still there? Oh, just some fat old bag complaining about me neglecting the lessons...Yeah, that's what I said to her, 'What bloody lessons?'"
The girl brayed like a donkey at her own jokes then said "I don't know, I'm not sure if I can trust you at the drive-in. What say we go to the local cinema instead? There's a good film on tonight, The Sludge Monster Meets the Son of Gammera...No sitting up, say near the front of the cinema, It's a bit hard to see the film with your ankles over somebody's shoulders...Well...I don't know...I guess we can go to the drive-in. But if we go in your panel van, you have to park it facing toward the screen...."
* * *
"Well, so much for that," said Pat Patterson as the three women left the craft room at the tail of the herd of exiting women.
"I haven't been so bored since I accidentally turned the TV to an Aussie Democrats policy speech during the lead up to the last federal election," said Norma.
"I know what you mean," agreed Debbie.
The three women walked single file through the scenic walk, back toward the front of the building.
"Look at this one," said Pat. She stopped in front of a canvass, which contained inane splashes of vivid red, orange, green, and blue. "I wonder what it's called?"
"Vomit by Pablo Picasso," suggested Norma.
"What say we all go around to my place to drown our sorrows in a sea of Baccardi and coke?" suggested Debbie, as they stepped out into the reception room.
"You can tell that she's been inspired by navigating the scenic walk twice in one days," said Pat.
"Count me out," said Norma. "I have to get home in case poor Jack gets home to an empty house."
"Yes, we can't have him waiting upon himself," said Debbie. "That's woman's work." She laughed, then put an arm around Pat's shoulders and said, "Well, it looks like it's just you and me, kid."
"Shouldn't you be getting back to your laundry?" asked Pat.
"Don't nag me, kid," said Debbie, giving Pat a pat on the backside. "We're not married you know." To Norma she said, "Actually we're just good friends."
* * *
A Week Later
"Well, what did you learn today?" asked Norma, placing her handbag on top of the kitchen table.
The three women, Norma, Debbie Williams, and Patricia Patterson, had just returned from their latest leatherwork class.
Norma felt the side of the electric kettle for warmth, Pat and Debbie slumped, exhausted onto two metal-framed chairs at the table, and Norma filled the kettle from the hot water tap, and then took cups and saucers from a cupboard above the sink.
"What did I learn today?" echoed Debbie, "Well, I learnt what a pain in the arse certain people can be."
"Yeah," agreed Pat. "Particularly leather work teachers who never get off the phone long enough to teach you anything."
"I'm thinking of making a leather strap, to use upon her, next lesson," said Debbie. "Maybe that will help her to get a bit motivated."
"Kinky baby," said Pat, "but nice."
"Well, I don't know about you two," said Norma, "but I learnt a valuable lesson today. Namely how tiring it can be to stand on the one spot, without moving, for an hour."
"Agreed," said Debbie.
Norma started ferreting around in the drawers under the sink. After a moment she said, "Damn, where is it?"
"Have you lost something?" asked Debbie.
"Yeah, I can't find our tin-opener."
"Will this do?" asked Pat. She reached into her large handbag and took out a pointed chisel.
"Where did you get that?" asked Norma, taking it from her.
"I flogged it from the leather work class," said Pat.
"You are a naughty girl," said Debbie, giving her a playful spank on the behind.
"Well, I figured we had to get something back for all the money we've paid. Since no one's actually teaching us anything," said Pat.
"Thanks," said Norma, laughing.
© Copyright 2010
Philip Roberts


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