The day bites. There’s no way of keeping the cold out, though I try valiantly with a coat, scarf, beanie and gloves. The clouds have closed over the sky – it’s already so dark it could be evening, not lunchtime. I leave the house with a green shopping bag in hand, but I’m beaten by the time I reach the end of my street. On a good day I feel as if I am walking knee-deep through mud; on a day like this I can barely move. At the end of the street I turn away from the shopping strip and skirt the gardens until I reach a gate.
The brave few in the park throw sticks for their dogs, kick soccer balls and read books, all the while stamping their feet and blowing on their hands, their cheeks flushed pink, breath billowing around their faces. There’s an unlikely match between an elderly man and a young feral taking place on the giant chessboard. The weekday party-mix of retirees, dole bludgers and people taking sickies.
The greenhouse squats in a secluded corner of the park, shielded on three sides by a tall hedge. Branches push against the dirty glass walls like commuters on a peak-hour train. Few people venture inside, mistaking it for a gardener’s shed. Apart from the time I interrupted a high school couple’s heavy petting near the orchids, I’ve never seen anyone in here.
Inside the greenhouse I remove my beanie, gloves and coat, and stuff them in my shopping bag. The air is sticky. I think of the greenhouse as a giant pair of lungs, sucking me in and gently releasing me. Everything is easier in here. Thoughts are born effortlessly; my muscles loosen to the point where I begin to feel less like a marionette and more like a well-oiled robot.
A wooden walkway circles the greenery with two narrow paths crossing through the centre. I take the walkway to my usual place. The only sounds are my sneakers squelching and condensation dripping from the rafters. Daylight seeps feebly through the glass.
When I get to my rock there’s a strange girl perched on it. This isn’t the surprise it should be. She looks perfectly at home, as if she were a plant herself. She’s wearing a green T-shirt and has long red hair that lies along her back. Her knees are drawn to her chest, her pale arms wrapped around them.
The effect isn’t ruined when she turns her head. She stares at me with rock-pool eyes. She says, ‘I hope I haven’t stolen your seat?’
‘No,’ I lie. I don’t see my name on it. That’s what I should say, but
I’m already a beat too slow.
She extends a hand. ‘Rebecca,’ she says. Her fingers touch my palm and then slip out.
She is waiting for me to reciprocate. ‘Linnaeus,’ I say. Her brow wrinkles. ‘He was a Swedish botanist–’
‘Oh, I know,’ she interrupts, smiling. ‘I studied horticulture at uni. Well, tried to. I quit after the first semester.’
She snaps a leaf off the branch in front of her and uses it to emphasise her words.
‘Linnaeus was the father of modern binomial taxonomy. He popularised the system of classification by genera and species. Species were classified according to observable characteristics.’
This is my speech, but I’m happy for someone else to deliver it. It gives me time to look at her. She has an interesting rather than beautiful face: a long creamy oval with none of the curves and peaks you find on other faces, almost as if some of the finer details have been erased. Her mouth puckers; she’s amused to be reciting half-forgotten university lectures to a stranger. When her eyes slide back to me I realise that she’s been finished for some time.
‘He liked to make sense of differences and similarities,’ I say quickly.
‘If only people were so easy to categorise. Then we’d always know what we’re getting.’
‘Why aren’t they? If plants can be done, why not humans?’
‘Well then, what are you, Linnaeus? Are you good or are you bad?’ I don’t answer. I spin my shopping bag until the handles cut off my
circulation and turn my fingers white.
‘Because you of all people should know,’ Rebecca continues. ‘Are you fighting for the forces of good or evil?’
If you keep quiet for long enough, people usually answer their own questions. Or leave the room. I look at my feet.
‘Sit.’ Rebecca pats the rock next to her in invitation. I’ve passed some sort of test.
I place my bag on the ground, and even though I move carefully, I stumble as I lower myself down. My hand shoots out to steady myself and scrapes painfully against the rock.
‘I’m not drunk,’ I explain. ‘I had a stroke two years ago. It screwed my balance up.’ This is true and not an excuse.
‘You can hardly tell.’
This is what polite people say when they can tell.
‘Everything else works fine.’ That’s not what I mean to say. My mouth unhinges. ‘The strange thing is, I was right-handed before the stroke, and now I’m left-handed. Except for chopsticks. I still use chopsticks with my right hand … tennis as well–’
‘I’m ambidextrous. I knit with both hands.’
I’m not sure if I’m supposed to laugh at that, and once I figure out that I am, it’s too late.
‘Linnaeus…’ When Rebecca says my name it zaps me like I have an electrode taped to the back of my neck. ‘Can you read some of these signs for me? I couldn’t get my contact lenses in this morning.’
I lean forward and clear my throat. We’re in the North Americas. My rock of choice sits right in front of the small collection of carnivorous plants.
‘Um, this one’s Dionaea muscipula, commonly called the Venus Flytrap. Each leaf has three triggers that are tripped when prey brush against them. Insects are lured by the bright red colour of the leaves.’
‘Lipstick red,’ says Rebecca. ‘We share our techniques with baboons and plants.’
This is the bit where I should say: I have a terrarium at home, with not only a Venus Flytrap, but several other remarkable examples from the Dionaea family. This is untrue, but that’s not what stops me from saying it.
I move on to the next sign. This is my favourite. I often sit and look at this plant and until I get all shivery and have to look away.
‘Sarracenia purpurea. The Purple Pitcher Plant.’
We both lean in close and look at the small vase-shaped flowers. A strand of Rebecca’s hair flicks out, grazing my arm.
‘A real Audrey,’ Rebecca says cryptically, turning her face to mine. I blink, blank. I’m a contestant on a game show and I don’t know any of the answers.
‘You’ve never seen Little Shop of Horrors? Steve Martin and Rick Moranis? Giant man-eating plant?’
I shake my head. This is the bit where I say: We should watch it together some time. And then: The video shop is just around the corner from my house …
Instead, I keep doggedly reading from the sign. Whoever wrote this stuff possibly spent too much time alone with plants.
‘The Pitcher Plant lures its victims with, uh…a sweet nectar and again…um…an enticing red colour.’ My cheeks are hot but I soldier on. ‘Once the prey is lured into the flower they find it difficult to escape because the walls are steep and slippery. The insects drown in the sticky liquid and are digested slowly by enzymes.’
The flowers of the pitcher plant are beautiful and dangerous. They flare like a trumpet at the rim and close in to a shadowy point at the base. Rebecca looks like she might get bored any second, so I keep talking.
‘I often think about what it would be like to be eaten alive by a plant,’ I say. ‘Imagine the moment when your feet slip on the edge and you realise that you won’t be able to stop yourself from falling in. And the tingly feeling of acid on your skin, slowly eating away at your flesh. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, if you could just relax and let yourself go.’ Rebecca looks at me. Her eyes have flecks of rust and yellow in them. I’m afraid she’ll read my mind with eyes like that. She speaks.
‘When I was twelve, I fell down an old well on my grandparents’ property. It took six hours for anyone to realise I was missing. They all thought I’d walked into town to get a milkshake. It was dark by the time they found me. I looked up at this tiny circle of light all day, hoping to be rescued before I had to drink my own pee out of my shoe. When night fell, the stars looked so far away. I had dreams about it for years. The worst kinds of dreams, where you’re glued to your bed and you can barely breathe.’
I know all about night terrors. ‘When you are being chased and your legs won’t work. No matter how hard you try to run, you can barely move.’
‘When you scream and no sound comes out.’
‘When your mum turns to face you and she’s got no eyes.’
‘But strangely enough,’ says Rebecca, ‘never about being swallowed alive by a man-eating plant.’
I can’t decide if her mouth looks better serious or smiling. I take a piece of her long red hair between my fingers and twirl it round and round. When I let go, it whirligigs until it’s straight once more. She leans in and places her mouth on mine, the tip of her tongue coming to rest just inside my lower lip. I move closer. Her hair caresses my cheek. I put my hand in the curve of her waist and then slide it north until I touch her breast.
Then I blink, and I haven’t touched her at all. Behind the carnivores there’s a trickle of sap winding its way down the trunk of a palm. I focus on the trickle and pray I haven’t moved in a way that betrays me.
‘You’re very strange, Linnaeus,’ says Rebecca. I don’t dare look at her.
‘So, I think I can ask you this question.’ I stop breathing.
‘I’m an artist. I painted for years but now I mostly knit.’ She says this without a trace of self-consciousness or pride. ‘I take photos of people wearing costumes I’ve knitted. I’d like to photograph you, if you’re okay with it.’
‘What sort of costumes?’
‘Mostly nudes. Knitted suits made to look like the naked body in all its variations. Tattoos and freckles and all.’
A laugh escapes me. ‘Are you joking?’
‘Not at all.’
This may be a lie. Her invitation could be part of an elaborate scheme designed to humiliate me. I scan the treetops for hidden cameras.
And then Rebecca uses my line. She delivers it better than I ever could.
‘I live just around the corner. It’s easier for me to explain what I do if I show you the suits and photos. Do you want to go there now?’
We leave the warmth of the greenhouse and walk out of the gardens, through the main gates and a tunnel of biting cold. Rebecca has only a thin jumper, so I lend her my coat. We turn left, away from my house and towards hers. The wind has died down but I still struggle to keep up with her.
‘This is why you dropped out of uni? To be an artist?’
‘Yes,’ she replies. Her hair falls across and curtains her face. I can tell that this was just another option for her, another item on the list that starts with fireman, nurse, bank teller, lawyer.
I look down at her ghost-gum arms. My fingers close around her wrist; locking over the joint like handcuffs clicking into shape. Everything else works just fine.
‘I won’t let go,’ I say. I mean it.
Her eyes are glassy. ‘My name’s not really Rebecca,’ she says.
At the end of the street we turn left, and then right after crossing over a roundabout. After that, I lose track of where we are. Not-Rebecca lives in a large block of redbrick flats built around a central garden. We begin to climb.
‘Am I a man or a woman?’
She laughs. ‘You’re the best person to answer that, surely.’
‘No, I mean will I be dressed up as a man or a woman?’
‘I’m not sure … the suit seems to choose the person, not the other way around.’
I’m too breathless to pursue her comment. The apartment is on the second floor, on the side furthest from the street. The left-hand side of my body aches. Stairs are not my strong suit. I sometimes think of myself as a building whose foundations have collapsed, dragging everything down on one side.
As soon as we get inside I drop my shopping bag on the floor and flop in an armchair. Not-Rebecca disappears without a word, flinging my coat at the couch on her way out. The room has monastic walls and unpolished floorboards; the armchair, a couch and coffee table are the only pieces of furniture. I’m in the school principal’s office waiting to be told off. I want you to sit here and think about what you’ve done.
Not-Rebecca reappears in the doorway with a camera hanging from her neck and a cardboard folio cradled in her arms. She beckons me to follow.
My eyes struggle in the gloom of her bedroom. Clothes flood from the gaping maw of the wardrobe, and dozens of recycled jars and bottles crowd her dressing table. A dusty plastic lei and an apron decorate a mirror leaning against the wall. It’s like a disorderly antique shop in here. All the lost and unwanted things of the household have fled to the bedroom, leaving the rest of the apartment bare.
Not-Rebecca picks a confident path through the detritus and throws the plastic cover off a clothes rack in the corner. The knitted nudie suits hang limply like deflated balloons.
‘I’ll leave you alone to get dressed. They’re quite stretchy; most of them should fit you. Try not to think about it too much. Like I said, the suit will pick you.’
The door clicks behind her. The bed is just a mattress on the floor. The sheets are crumpled on both sides. Maybe she’s the kind of expansive sleeper that throws herself over the whole bed. Maybe her biker boyfriend is hiding in the wardrobe. A photo of an older woman with dyed hair and a tired smile is stuck to the wall next to the mirror. She has been cut out of a larger photo and a disembodied arm lies across her shoulders. I lean in for a closer look when the sound of furniture scraping in the next room startles me.
The suits come in a variety of shades of pink and brown. They cover the whole body and end at the neck, wrist and ankle. They have nipples and pubic hair and genitalia. One suit has a scar across the belly; another has a huge padded bum. I choose a pink suit, male, with bright orange pubic hair. It’s her colouring, not mine. The suit is tight around my shoulders and baggy at the knees. I shuffle back to the lounge room, my arms hanging by my sides. As if it isn’t difficult enough already.
Not-Rebecca has twisted her hair into a bun and wears a pair of glasses. The armchair has been pushed aside, leaving a blank expanse of wall.
‘Here’s how I usually work. I take Polaroids of the subject in their chosen suit. I sit on it for a few days and then I decide where I’ll take the photo.’
‘You don’t take them here?’
‘No, I usually photograph my subjects in natural settings. Look.’
I glance at the pile of photos spread out on the coffee table. Some of the faces in them are shy, others defiant. They have been shot at train stations, in libraries, on crowded streets.
‘I’m not going anywhere in this!’ I gesture helplessly with my legof-ham arms.
Not-Rebecca casts me a no-nonsense look. ‘Stand over there please, against the wall.’
‘This is embarrassing.’ I shuffle into place. Her bossiness and the glasses are lending a distinct sexy schoolteacher air to the proceedings. I start to plan what to do in the event of an erection.
‘Tell me a story, then,’ not-Rebecca suggests. ‘Distract yourself.’ The camera flashes and the film shoots out. Not-Rebecca blows on
the Polaroid and then places it on the coffee table.
‘I don’t have one.’ I tell the kind of stories that can send speed freaks to sleep.
‘Yes, you do. Everyone does. Side-view, please.’
I sigh and turn. ‘I heard something in the lift at work yesterday.’
‘Promise me you won’t tell me where you work. I haven’t told you what I do for money.’ Not-Rebecca lines up another shot, gesturing with her hand for me to turn my back to her. I tell my story to the wall.
‘My office is on the ninth floor and I was catching the lift to the ground floor. At the seventh floor two men got in and stood on either side of me. It’s a building full of sales people and everyone looks the same. The men muttered to themselves quietly. One of them had a slight accent. They were complaining about their boss. Then the man without the accent said in a surprised voice – Mate! Those shoes look dangerous! The man with the accent replied but I didn’t catch what he said. I didn’t have the courage to look at his shoes until we reached the ground floor. I looked down quickly as they left. The man with the accent was wearing ordinary black lace-ups, plain leather shoes, a bit scuffed. I couldn’t see anything unusual about them at all.’
I turn around. Not-Rebecca lowers her camera and smiles in a twisted fashion.
‘Maybe they had explosives in the soles, or switchblades that shot out of the heels?’
‘I think they were doing it on purpose, just saying it to mess with my head. They probably had a good laugh about it at lunch.’
Not-Rebecca just raises her eyebrows. My voice slips up a notch.
‘Because people do that, you know: set up people to make fun of them, make them look foolish for their own entertainment.’ My shoulders are hot and itchy. I pull at the suit, trying to relieve my skin from the scratchy wool.
Not-Rebecca bends down and studies the Polaroids lined up on the table. She turns to me with a hard look. She’s been toughening up perceptibly since we stepped into her apartment.
‘Let me tell you something about Linnaeus, Linnaeus. Something that not many people know. The man had strange ideas. Not only did he have some funny ideas about racial hierarchies, but he actually believed in mythological creatures, wolfboys and wildgirls and satyrs and the like.’
‘You could make great suits,’ I say. ‘Imagine the possibilities, people with horns and one eye and hairy, like yetis.’
Not-Rebecca doesn’t answer me but her face creases with dissatisfaction. I wonder where she was going with the freak-talk.
‘Hold on, I can see a thread, up there, to the left.’
She stands in front of me, and then moves closer still, like a dentist moving in on a patient. Her fingers touch me lightly on the collarbone and fly away. A strand of pink wool moves with her. She pulls on the loose thread, winding it around her hand as it unravels. Cold air hits my chest. The wool rasps gently against my skin. Not-Rebecca’s lips look improbably swollen and red. If I get too close I’ll fall in and never be able to climb out.
When the cold reaches nipple level not-Rebecca runs her hand over my head and winds the strand of wool around my neck. Her face is centimetres from mine; her marble eyes stare, lidless. Without breaking her gaze she winds the wool again and pulls it tight against my throat, moving her fist back like an archer drawing a bow.
I can smell her lemony shampoo. My hands are free to move lightly up her back. I flex my fingers and wave to myself over her shoulders. Her neck is so thin my hands could easily circle it. I close my eyes and think about my next line.