I rent an apartment that is not far from the centre of the city. The apartment is on a main road where trams run in the middle of the road and two lanes of cars go on either side of the tracks. We are not far from the zoo and I have sometimes heard what I take to be the roaring of the lions in the early hours of the morning. Opposite the apartment is a public hospital where the ambulances drive in and out, day and night, day in and day out. Police cars and fire engines drive along the road at high speed, flashing their lights and sounding their sirens. In the sky above the apartment I often see helicopters. There’s always plenty of noise from outside, and I keep the TV on to counteract it. Sometimes I don’t know whether the sirens are on the TV or coming from the outside world. Once when Diane who lives in the next apartment had locked herself out, she came in here to wait for her flatmate to come home. She sat on the sofa watching the news and I was making salad in the kitchen. When the ads came on Diane called out to me to come and look. See that girl advertising skim milk, Diane said, well she’s got a heart transplant. And guess whose heart it is really? I said I couldn’t guess. It’s my fiancé’s ex-wife’s brother’s heart. I asked her how she knew that and Diane explained that the brother died in a road accident and his heart was flown to the hospital across the road by chopper. The same night the girl with the skim milk got the heart. Must be his, Diane said.

When Diane and her fiancé get married they are going to move out to a house in a suburb as far away from here as possible. They are saving up to put a deposit on a house because they just couldn’t stand to bring up children in a place like this. Diane is frightened of the woman in the apartment across the hall, even though I have tried to tell her the woman is pretty harmless. The woman pins up notices on the door of her place saying things like, ‘Jews and Chinese Keep Out’ and ‘Meat is Murder’ and ‘Jesus wants YOU for a sunbeam’. Diane’s fiancé, Alan, is a helicopter pilot, and in December he gets to fly the Santa Clauses around to all the shopping plazas and sports ovals. Alan says that because of the stress that comes with their job the Santas drink. They get into the helicopter with their sacks full of scotch and they make Alan fly them round and round in circles while they get up the courage to go on with the job. The drink takes different ones in different ways; some get tearful and sentimental, and some get violent. Two of them have fallen asleep in the air, and once one had a mild heart attack and had to be flown to a bayside hospital. Diane told me these things about the Santa Clauses the night she was waiting for her flatmate with the key. By the time the flatmate, Bronwen, got home, Diane and I had eaten the salad and some chops and half a frozen cheesecake. When I was grilling the chops the woman from across the hall came over and started banging on the door with a wooden spoon. She always does that. You take not notice.

Bronwen sat down and told us about her day in the department store where she works as a Gift Wrapper and also as a Christmas Hamper Consultant. She got a special award for selling the most gift items aside from food items to go into the hampers. I asked her what sort of things went into hampers and she said everybody, just about, got straight-forward things like potted cheeses from England and special honey from the Holy Land. Then there were amusing things like chocolate-covered ants and pickled cactuses. But it’s easy, Bronwen said, to persuade people to include some jewellery and china and glassware and lingerie and linen and perfumery. One woman spent nearly $700 on a hamper that she sent to the people she had just bought a house from in a really beautiful area. The house cost $700,000 at the auction and the $700,000 explained the figure of $700 for the hamper, Bronwen said. When Diane and I said we didn’t get the connection, Bronwen told us the whole story. She said she heard the story from Kevin in Jams, Jellies and Imported Condiments.

The house had been completely restored before the sale, with new leadlights and carpets and ceiling roses. The garden was a showplace, and when the wisteria was in bloom people used to get out of their cars and take photographs. Once a bride asked if she could have her wedding photos taken in front of the wisteria, and one of the pictures appeared in Harper’s Bazaar as an ad for something. The people who sold the house loved it, and sold it to this woman who said she was going to love it too. The gave her spare tins of paint for touch-ups and left-over pieces of the carpet. But as soon as the woman had taken possession of the house she had it knocked down. Bronwen said such things are done these days as a matter of course, and so it was unusually kind of the buyer to send the people the hamper. The hamper contained a dozen Moët et Chandon and four tins of Scottish grouse, as well as chocolate-covered ants and a Norwegian mystery parcel. Bronwen said that when she told Mrs Pepper from Lingerie about all this at morning tea Mrs Pepper said $700 for knocking down a person’s house was nothing these days. She told Bronwen that people were paying $2000 for nighties for their mothers.

Bronwen gets a discount on everything she buys in the store and she got a set of brass things like ice tongs and bottle openers and corkscrews for Diane to give to Alan for Christmas. Some of these had dog heads, and some had bird heads. Bronwen said she had wrapped dozens of them for customers. She said she had also wrapped six step-ladders and one wheelbarrow. She did the ladders up to look like giraffes. Mrs Pepper from Lingerie said she should get a prize for her wrapping. Then Diane asked Bronwen if it would be possible to wrap up a helicopter. Diane’s idea was that she would arrive at the church on her wedding day in a chopper decorated to resemble a wedding bell. Bronwen said of course she could do it, but she didn’t think it was very good idea. When Diane asked her why not, Bronwen admitted that as a matter of fact whenever she saw a chopper going over it always reminded her of the angel of death. Diane said no, quite the opposite, and just at that minute the girl with the skim milk came on the TV and Diane said to take the instance of the girl in the ad. If it hadn’t been for the helicopter she wouldn’t have been alive; she wouldn’t have been able to get Alan’s ex-wife’s brother’s heart. Bronwen said she realised all that but she didn’t think a helicopter was the right note for a wedding. They were still arguing about this when they went next-door to their apartment. I think Diane will persuade Bronwen that the helicopter would be a good idea for the wedding. She has the example of the Santas on her side, and the argument about the girl in the skim milk ad is very hard to ignore.

(This story was published in my collection ‘The Common Rat’ 1993) 


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