“It was only a patch at first. A sort of whiskery growth. Like lichen. Small and on his chin.”
She is stuffing zucchinis into a plastic bag. Bending them into submission.
“I very nearly reached over and wiped it off. As you do. Only he doesn’t like you drawing attention to his appearance. Razor nicks. Flecks of shaving foam. That sort of thing. And he never would use an electric.”
The last zucchini snaps in two but she shoves it in, regardless.
“Then I realised it was newsprint. Right there, a little patch of antimony staring me in the face, so I couldn’t take my eyes off it. But when I went to read the words, they were too tiny. Even with reading glasses. Still, to me it looked like a snippet of Fin. Review.”
She moves on to potatoes. Tubers and tap roots. Parsnips. Kumera. Swedes. Taro. Staple starches. She stands running her hand over smooth skins of Desirées, ovals, pale as flesh, comparing them to Kipflers and Pontiacs before ripping off another bag to harvest them.
“Well, I said nothing, of course. I put it down to recent stress, overwork, long hours, and I felt sure once he’d finished the big job he was working on, it’d go away. Overnight, hopefully. The lines around his eyes would disappear, leaving his face smooth as a baby’s bottom. Almost.”
She passes the plump pumpkins. Butternuts and Queensland Blues. Green and golden gourds, spotted and knobbly, textured like desert lizards, before leaning over towards the parsnip patch. She begins dropping them heavy end first into a new bag, leaving the skinny ends sticking out, like long, thin feet from a bed.
“There are so many fancy veg you can choose from, nowadays. Bok choy, okra, radiccio. Amazing. When I was a girl, we’d only just heard of avocadoes.”
On past the variegated greens of broccoli and fennel, mounds of pretty little Brussels sprouts, elegant French beans, decidedly proper English spinach, rocket, light enough to take off and darkly, sinister silver beet.
“Anyway, it was there again next morning, the spot, so I waited for him to say something about it. Surely he must have seen it, shaving? Or else somebody at the office must have noticed and commented. Only they hadn’t, it seems. Perhaps they were just too polite? Either that, or he wasn’t saying.
“Then a couple of days later I noticed a new patch. This time on his forehead, about 5cm above his left eyebrow. Another dollop of Fin. Review. I remember thinking that’ll put the kibosh on it, when you go to raise your eyebrow. How are you going to manage that quizzical look of yours? You won’t be able to, not without a struggle.
“Then I thought perhaps I should tell him? Even if he didn’t want to
hear it. Better than leaving him ignorant. So I plucked up the courage and said, ‘How was your shave, this morning?’ Casually. He gave me The Look. Or tried to, because the newsprint crinkled just as I’d thought it would and he looked as if he were pushing an ink blot up his face.
“‘Fine,’ he said, then, ‘Why?’ So I knew he couldn’t have noticed. Unless - and that’s when it occurred to me, if he couldn’t see anything different about his face, and the people in the office couldn’t then maybe I was the only one who could which set me thinking. Either I was going barmy in a hurry, or else I’d suddenly developed some amazing extrasensory, psychic, sixth sense.
“So I began scrutinizing other people in shops and in the street, and on buses and trains to see if they were growing newspaper patches, too. But none of them were. Then I started wondering what could have caused it and decided it must mean he’d read far too many newspapers, over the years, and he’d developed some sort of allergy.”
She reaches the cucumber section - piled high with edible greens - 40 Reasons Why Cucumbers Are Better Than Men, supposedly. Big chunky normals, Telegraphs in tight-fitting, slinky, plastic spacesuits, and small, firm, hand-sized Lebanese.
“Then I thought, maybe, some alien was trying to send me a message from beyond. Like a medium. Only instead of holding hands with a glass tapping around a table, this was all coming out of him in a sort of daily bulletin, and perhaps, I should start reading it.
“So I leant over and said, ‘Hold still a minute,’ and peered at his chin and forehead. It didn’t make sense . . . . . the jobless rate, which rose from 6.3 per cent. . was stuck to his chin, while. . prices have declined considerably in line with falling world oil prices. . was hovering above his eyebrow. What did that have to do with me?
“Fancy. All those years of propping the newspaper up over breakfast; him behind a paper wall, occasionally extending a hand to reach for his coffee and this was the result. Well, maybe it’s a phase you’re going through, and at the weekend, it’ll disappear, Let’s hope it’s only a midweek thing. Like a news flash.
“I dreaded the thought of the Saturday morning, and the weekend papers to wade through. At first I hardly dared look at his face, fearing the worst, but then I took a quick peek over the colour supplement. There it was, another patch! On his cheek this time. And nothing financial. Sport. Well, it was the weekend, I suppose. I could tell it was sport. It was a bit of photo that looked like a footballer’s bum, or part thereof. Caught in a ruck, I’d say, or wherever else footballers get caught.
“I felt relieved, somehow. If he was going to be covered in newsprint, there might as well be some variety. It made for a better layout. Pictures, as well as copy; news and current affairs, sport, entertainment, book reviews, theatre, tiny pars of human interest, maybe even cookery sections. A spread like that could last me till Monday.
“It was much better. I found myself looking at him with renewed interest. He was not only keeping abreast of the news, he was on top of it. His headlines were up to date, in fact, he’d become a walking news stand.
“There, in front of me, new patches had appeared, the results of last week’s race meetings at Randwick, Doomben, Moonee Valley and Sandown. Not to mention the midweek, snap-happy Dapto Dogs meeting. And without my even having to open the paper!
“I could find out details of the latest Audi 8, if I wanted to, or
even buy a second-hand Mitsubishi Pajero Exceed, if I felt so inclined. I could read up on the proposed sell-off of Telstra. And find out who was talking to whom in the Greens.
“That was when I got up and made a strong pot of tea. This was going to need concentration. And stamina, if I was to read him right. Especially since I’d spotted one of those tiny little headlines tucked away at the side of his cheek, near his left ear: Balcony sitter was dead STOCKHOLM: An elderly woman sat for two months on her balcony before a neighbour discovered she was dead, it was reported yesterday. The 84-year-old woman might have died while watching fireworks from her apartment on New Year’s Eve, police said. The woman was found sitting on a chair on her balcony, dressed in a coat and hat.
“How terrible! And there was another, just below his right ear: Dead baby LONDON: A woman who died aged 92 had been carrying her dead baby - long since calcified - for 60 years, two Austrian doctors reported yesterday.
“How sad! Only by this time I’d moved on to the real estate supplement and was trying to figure out where our suburb fitted in to the top price areas for recent house sales. It didn’t, apparently. And as for the job section, who was going to employ me as a crane driver, which was the only thing that appealed to me? Whatever happened to good old fashioned occupations, like cordwainer, dogger, aleconner, or beggar-banger? Just for argument’s sake, suppose I wanted to be a plumassier, lattener, jarvey or tambourer? I’d be hard-pressed to find anything on offer.
“Naturally, after that, I kept a close eye on him, and gradually I let him become my mine of information. Other papers started to appear. too. Tabloids, as well as broadsides. On Sundays and Mondays there were TV guides, intermingled with the week’s Stars and later on, bits of The Bulletin and National Geographic started to pop up. In the end I was able to cancel the normal paper delivery - there was no need for it. I had him all to myself and could read him like a book.
“Of course, I tried to do something about it. As his wife, I felt a responsibility. So I took to standing behind him in the bathroom, saying, ‘Hang on a minute,’ and I’d wipe his neck with a tissue, or, ‘Wait, there’s a bit you’ve missed here.’ Then I’d grab a face washer and start scrubbing, only have you ever noticed how hard antimony is to get off, once it’s embedded in the skin? I tried a sponge, then a squeegee and even once a bit of steel wool (soap impregnated, of course) but even that didn’t work. ‘Ouch, that hurt!’ was all he said, and thumped me, so I gave up the thought of trying a blow torch.
“Sometimes I had to ask him to turn a little this way or that, like turning a page, because it was hard to read him at an angle, but mostly it was fine, even though it was only ever bits and pieces of articles, never a full page. And as you’d expect, each day his news content changed.”
She reaches the fruit section. Strawberries, mangoes, guavas and persimmons. She fondles them lovingly. Fejoias, raspberries, peaches and tamarillos. Smooth to the touch of a finger. Soft as skin.
“It didn’t stop there, either. There were fragments of words turning up on his back like scribbly black moles, that needed watching. Then it started to leach out over his armchair and across the rug which was a bit much. There were odd spots of lettering on cushions and the lampshade, and as for his side of the bed, it was truly black and white and read all over. The print column started inching its way up the walls and no matter what laundry detergent or household spray I tried, it simply wouldn’t come out.
“Once, it even became a jigsaw. Odd bits were missing and I found myself wanting to fill in gaps.
“Then, one day I decided to fight fire with fire, so to speak. I went to the recycle bin for some old newspapers. I sat in a sunny spot in the garden and tore them into thousands of tiny pieces. After that I made up a big pot of glue on the stove, flour and water based, tossing in a bit of wallpaper glue I found at the back of a cupboard. When it was cool, I waited till his attention was distracted then began pasting tiny pieces of newsprint over the gaps to make him all smooth.”
She holds up a big bunch of grapes, admires the weight and fullness. Lovingly strokes the furred skin of kiwis, ruffles the curly haired lychees, before moving on again.
“Papier maché, it was. Layer upon layer, to form a skin. Well, it took me weeks - I had to let each coat dry before starting on the next. But, finally, once the layers were thick enough, I removed the head and cut down the middle, then scooped out the pulp, like passionfruit seeds, and threw it away. Then, I taped the sides back together and stuck a cardboard cylinder up the centre for a handle.
“You see, I’d made myself a puppet, one I could actually talk to, who wouldn’t answer back, or disagree, or say anything untoward or grumpy. Quite the contrary. I christened him A for Acquiescence.”
She’d reaches the checkout and empties her trolley of artichokes, aubergines, capsicums and corn, parsnips and pomegranates, mushrooms and mung beans, finishing up with yams and zucchinis.
“When I’d finished, I noticed quite by accident six patches of newsprint in a row, riding roughshod over his nose in a kind of pattern:
finance current affairs real estate sport
“It seemed a mantra of sorts, that rather suited him.”
She pays the girl and puts the change into her purse.
“Well, I suppose you’re wondering what I did with him? Truth is, there was nothing I could do. I thought of lighting a fire down the bottom of the yard and burning off some tree prunings at the same time, only it’s not ecologically friendly. Burning off, that is. I don’t have a fuel stove and it would never have done to put him in the compost.
“So, in the end I just bundled him up and put him out with the paper recycling, along with the rest of his Fin Reviews. That seemed the best thing, really, and I knew he’d be happy there.”
© Vashti Farrer