The table spread was immaculate; an assortment of cheese lay by a medley of spiced olives and peppers.
It’s like something out of Roman Holiday, Elaine mused.
Except she wasn’t a runaway princess.
The homemade bread was in the oven and she had a few moments to check her appearance in the mirror. She spritzed perfume on her wrists and rubbed them together. It was the same perfume she always used. It was strong, opiating, and prone to bringing on a bout of sneezing. She tightened her bra straps, hoping to fight the laws of gravity. A mauve dress hugged her generous waist and hid her from the knees up. Despite her age, her hair was in Shirley Temple curls. The smear of tangerine lipstick was the final touch. She looked in the mirror and approved.
Why didn’t I do this earlier? All this freedom was mine all along. I stopped myself from meeting nice men like John all because of Brother Ezra. But Brother Ezra was wrong; people outside our flock weren’t doomed. They weren’t evil and beyond salvation. I wish I knew that sooner. My mind stopped being cloudy when the police took him away.
His bracelet was still tightened against her wrist, a reminder of her dedication, her ties to Brother Ezra’s church. She still lacked the gall to take it off, fearing Brother Ezra would somehow know. Ten minutes until he’s here. She opened her phone screen and browsed through John’s profile for the fiftieth time. He liked: sport, travel, fishing, drinking, and music. He sounded wonderful.
She chilled a bottle of Bordeaux wine and tried to recall all she knew about AFL and cricket: the origins, the history. She too had travelled. She had visited Jane Austen’s resting place, spent a month in the Carpathians, worked in Budapest, and visited friends in Spain. She had many stories to share, stories which Brother Ezra stifled and made her regret. To him, they were full of wickedness and extravagance which hindered Elaine from her path to enlightenment. Now I can finally talk of Dali’s art, life under Communism, the taste of sangria.
The doorbell rang and she roused from her reverie. She stomped to the door in her snug high heels and took a deep breath.
“Elaine?” the guest asked with uncertainty.
“Yes,” she beamed and welcomed him like a long-lost relative.
He looked just like he did in his pictures, except for his height. He was a tad shorter than expected, but that was fine. Elaine did not complain. He had a ruddy glow, long chin, eyes which were lined with purple rings, mousy hair speckled with peroxide and a few gold rings decorated his fingers.
“Nice place,” he scanned her home.
“Is it this way?” he pointed.
“Oh no, that’s my bedroom. This way, please,” she led him to the kitchen and he sat down like a naughty schoolboy.
“Hope you like the wine, it’s a Bordeaux Rouge from 1982.”
“Got any beer?”
“Oh, no, I’m so sorry John. How silly of me!”
Elaine buried her face in her palms, hating herself for starting the evening with such a faux pas. Brother Ezra’s face flashed in her mind, he punished every slip-up with lashes from a hazel-tree branch.
“Nah, nah, all good, don’t stress,” John squeezed her hand and started chugging the wine.
John is different; he doesn’t want to harm me. He’s gentle, he has my hand in his.
“So John, tell me something about you,” Elaine looked at him, her eyes expectant and wide as saucers.
“I’m a truckie, long hours, gets a bit lonely, but I’ve seen the whole of the state. De facto has my kid, that stupid bitch! Go to the footy when I can, but that’s not cheap.”
“It’s a majestic sport, the players are valiant like gladiators.”
“Nah, Collingwood bloody suck! So what about yourself, no fella?”
John gobbled down a slice of cheese and rubbed his oily hands on his jeans.
“Like you, I’m a bit of a traveller. Three years in Europe chasing art and good food. I work in a bookstore now.”
“Reading too many romances?”
“Oh, guilty! But this is my first venture in online dating.”
“Yeah the internet is great, makes it seem like a video game.”
“Until recently I lived in a commune, I was on a spiritual path, trying to find myself.”
“Ah yeah, where did that take ya?”
“Nowhere, I’m still searching for fulfilment just like before. Brother Ezra did not have all the answers,” she sighed, but he didn’t seem to be listening.
“You beauty!” he shouted after he refreshed the football score on his phone. He gobbled more olives and dipped the bread in their oil. “Nice wog food,” he approved.
Elaine watched him and Brother Ezra’s mind came to mind, he wouldn’t have approved of John. He would have called him an undesirable, a hindrance to enlightenment, an empty shell.
“So ya wanna?” he placed his hand on her sturdy knee and raised his eyebrows like a cartoon character.
“Ya know, get the party started?” John cocked his head towards the bedroom.
“I think you’ve got the wrong idea, John. I want to find a good man, I’m not about to give in to sin of the flesh,” Brother Ezra’s words rolled out of her mouth.
“Bloody time-waster,” John stormed off, hands full of hot bread. “Elaine, men don’t work for fourteen hours and see a woman expecting an opera recital. If I just wanted a conversation and some grub, I would have visited my mother. Grow up and welcome to the real world!”
John slammed the door as he left.
Elaine sunk on the floor, rocking her body like an infant. She had been wrong. People are not nice, they are selfish and wicked. People outside Brother Ezra’s approved flock cannot be trusted. She felt that familiar pull. Brother Ezra would be out of prison, they only got him on minor infringements. His phone number kept repeating itself in her mind, his face becoming more and more vivid. He did punish, but he did it out of love, out of his role as protector.
There was a knock on the door. Can it be Brother Ezra? Could he have sensed my pain and manifested? She opened the door with the eagerness of a child on Christmas morning. There stood John again.
“I left my keys on your table.”
Maggie Jankuloska is a Macedonian-born and Melbourne based teacher and writer. She writes short stories and is currently working on her debut novel. She was the winner of the 2015 YPRL Write Now! short story competition and was featured in the 2016 Award Winning Australian Writing collection. Find her on Twitter @maggiejank