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Thursday, 29 November 2012

The Busybody of Lindfield

The man thought no one was watching him in the cold, early morning darkness. His furtive glances failed to detect me behind the sliding glass doors of the 24-hour supermarket across the road. He slipped on a pair of thick black gloves and began to climb the telegraph pole.

Every morning I watched the man emerge from a nearby manhole and slink up to the pole. At precisely five am, two hours after my morning shift had started, he would begin to stake out the street. At approximately ten past five, if the coast was clear, he would climb. I could see everything on the street from my regular position at cash register number four.

I could not fathom an honest reason for the man’s skulking. It has been my experience that law-abiding citizens don’t slither around street drains and up telegraph poles in the early mornings. On the other hand, I could not put my finger on what his underhanded purpose was. There were no windows into which he could snoop; He gained no notoriety from the exercise; He didn’t sabotage the electricity cables, always stopping well short of touching them. He invariably just turned around and clambered back down the pole again, then crept back into the man-hole. There was only one thing of which I was sure. The man did not want to be seen.

The back of my neck prickled and a tingle of heat began to crawl up my face. People were perpetually trying to hide things from me. They thought that their mundane, trivial lives were too precious and special to be shared with me - going to great lengths to conceal the commonplace miscellany of their existence. Despite facing a constant wall of reticence, I tried to take the high road with others. I would be frank and honest, and asked them directly about their lives. My openness was rewarded with evasive answers and a masquerade of dishonesty. This man was no different.

My light brown ringlets began to stick to my clammy face. I took out a small hand mirror from the cash register drawer and brushed them back. The reflection of my bulbous brown eyes and slightly large, pig-shaped nose glared back at me. No one could deny that I was handsome and had a charisma about me. I tried to forget about the silly man and smiled at myself in the mirror. My voluminous lips pursed open to reveal my wide coffee-stained front teeth.

It was lonely at the supermarket at this time of the morning. There was only one other staff member in the service area and we didn’t get along. Kathryn. Just thinking her name made my face pucker up in disgust. Talking to Kathryn was worse than talking to a lump of dirt. She had nothing to say, always keeping her thin lips steadfastly closed.

The arrival of the meddlesome man meant that the night packers would soon be coming off their shifts and passing through the staffroom to clock out. It was the perfect time for me to take a break.

I rested my generous arm on the cash register bench and picked up the register-phone, admiring my hot pink nail polish. It made my stubby fat fingers look long and model-like. Kathryn answered the phone from register six.
‘Yessss?’ Kathryn’s voice sounded testy, even for her.

‘I’m taking my break now.’

‘Fine.’

As I walked towards the staff room I could hear the alluring swish of my stockings brushing together at the top of my thighs. It was lucky there were no customers around to get distracted by the noise.

The night packers were in the staffroom, just as I’d hoped. Perfect. Brent was always good to talk to, being one of the few people who didn’t try to hide things from me.

‘Brent.’ I tapped Brent three times sharply on the shoulder. Sometimes people didn’t notice me if I tapped them only once or twice or if I tapped too lightly. Three sharp taps was the best. I’d learnt a lot about how to deal with people from working in the service industry for ten years.

‘Hang on, love.’ Brent continued typing his passcode into the clocking system, then turned around. ‘What’s up?’

I put my hands on my hips. The hard ridge of my hip bones was buried under the rolls of my stomach-fat. I pressed my hands in deeply until I felt the comforting firmness of my bones.

‘Your wife bought six litres of milk on Saturday, and three litres of milk on Monday. What are you using all that milk for?’ I asked.

Brent scratched his head. I could see the other packers had stopped chatting and were listening to our conversation. Two of them exchanged glances but the smiles on their faces quickly dropped when they saw me watching them.

‘I dunno, Sally. We had some guests over on the weekend so I guess my wife probably wanted milk for cups of tea and so on.’

I stepped in closer towards Brent and extracted my hands from my hips. His wife hadn’t mentioned they were having guests over when she came through my check-out last week.

‘Who was visiting you?’

I could hear some of the other packers start to snicker. I glared at them and the snickering stopped. I didn’t know what their problem was. Probably, like me, they were baffled by Brent’s wife’s strange milk buying habits and her secretive behaviour about their weekend visitors. However, the packers should have had more social graces than that. They should have known that it was impolite of them to openly humiliate Brent like that. Perhaps I would have to drop by their homes to explain some manners to them. I’d done it before. Afterwards many of my colleagues had mentioned it to me. My etiquette lessons were a real hit amongst the supermarket staff.

Brent looked confused.‘Ummm, let me see. We just had a few of the lads over from my rugby team I think.’

Some of the members of Brent’s rugby team shopped at our supermarket. I made a mental note to ask them about it when they came through my check-out. Satisfied, I nodded to Brent, then swished into the locker room to get my morning tea. To my disappointment, when I emerged back into the staffroom all the packers were gone. I would have to spend my ten-minute break alone.

Working on my feet made me ravenous. I ate as much food as I could manage in ten minutes. It wasn’t much as I was a dainty eater – three cream buns, two donuts, and a carton of chocolate milk. Then I joined tight-lipped Kathryn at the registers.

I almost blurted out in surprise…The man from the sewer was shopping. My heart fluttered with excitement. Finally, a chance to confront the deviant.

The man had taken off his black cat-burglar lycra and was wearing a surprisingly normal outfit of jeans and a plain blue t-shirt. He was obviously trying to blend in, as if he wasn’t an abnormal sewer-dweller. He was carrying an old-fashioned picnic basket, and filling it with fruit, mostly apples. The basket had a pink checked, frilly lining. It seemed too wholesome an accessory for such a scoundrel. He was trying far too hard to camouflage into normal society.

At that moment, the man looked up at me and smiled. His blue eyes twinkled happily. If I hadn’t watched his subterfuge with the pole every morning, I would have been fooled by his seemingly friendly, honest nature. I scowled back at the man, before remembering to pull my lips back into my most approachable smile - I wanted him to choose my cash-register over Kathryn’s.

He was almost completely bald. His last few remaining hairs were shaved into a crew cut. His shoulders looked powerful under his t-shirt. Climbing out of the man-hole and up a pole every morning had done wonders for his figure. His bald head skin matched the sun-kissed glow of his arms. He looked every bit a normal, healthy, mid-to-late thirties man.

I could barely contain my excitement as I waited for him to finish shopping. I almost destroyed my magnificent nails nervously tapping on the bench. Finally, the man approached the service area, heading directly towards Kathryn’s check-out. If only I’d been within an arm’s reach, I could have tapped him three times sharply on the arm.

However, I had the power to redeem this. I’d learnt some tricks during my time as a service assistant.

‘Next please, sir!’ I called out, and gave a girly cute yet sexy giggle. My bosom was heaving now in excitement. Kathryn glared at me but I didn’t care. The man began to walk towards me.

I waited until he’d placed all his shopping on my conveyor belt, and scanned the first item before I dared to speak. Now he was stuck with me for duration of the transaction. I couldn’t cancel an order without getting Kathryn to use her supervisor’s key.

I took a deep breath. The man looked at me expectantly.

‘Why do you come out of the man-hole across the street and climb that telegraph pole every morning at five o’clock?’ I asked.

In an instant, the man’s friendly smile disappeared and his honey tan evaporated into a sickly grey. Panicked, he swung his head around to see if anyone was within earshot of us. They weren’t. Kathryn was busy rearranging the cigarette cabinet and hadn’t heard a thing.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ The man’s voice was weak, like a mouse taking its last breath.

‘Tell me the truth. I see you every morning. I have a perfect view of the man-hole and telegraph pole from here.’

The man was breathing shallowly now and he looked through the sliding glass doors to confirm that the telegraph pole was in fact, in dead view of us. His brow was breaking into a sweat. It looked unnatural on such a fit, well-muscled man. Finally he collected himself. He spoke firmly.

‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re obviously crazy.’

For the second time that morning I felt my neck prickle and a creeping burn begin across my face. He was worse than all the others. I’d given him the courtesy of asking him directly and he’d lied to my face.

‘I’m not crazy,’ I said.

The man had finally lost his sickly pallor and was building up some steam.

‘If you think I climb out of the man-hole every morning and up that telegraph pole at five am then why don’t you call the police and tell them then? It’s against the law for non-waterboard employees to enter the stormwater drains you know.’

He wasn’t the only one who was losing their temper.

‘You would know!’ A droplet of my spittle landed on his face.

‘Just give me my change.’ The man shoved his hand out aggressively. Kathryn had started taking notice of us now. Having no other choice without making a scene, I gave the man his change. He waved the picnic basket obtrusively in my face.

‘Thank you!’ He stormed out. This time, he didn’t exit via the man-hole. I watched him walk down the street and disappear down a side alley with his strange picnic basket full of apples.

That hadn’t gone as well as I’d hoped. I’d found out nothing, and now my curiosity and rage was more inflamed than ever. I hadn’t felt this frustrated since Brent’s wife had purchased a bunch of flowers and a gift-box of chocolates, then taken them through Kathryn’s check-out instead of mine. Now that I’d revealed myself, I could be sure that the man would never climb up the telegraph pole again. It would be difficult to find out his dirty little secret. I didn’t regret my actions though. Just because other people hide behind games and indirect conversation, doesn’t mean that I have to lower myself to their level, even with a perverse drain creature like that man.

The days which followed the unsatisfactory encounter confirmed my suspicions. The man no longer climbed out of the man-hole and up the telegraph pole every morning. It was a frustrating week. As I walked home a few days later, the alluring swish of my stockings rubbing between my thighs no longer sounded seductive but carried the taunting sound of people whispering and keeping secrets. Shhh! Shhh! Don’t tell Sally anything. Shhh! Shhh! Even peering inside the invitingly open curtains of the windows of the houses that I passed failed to cheer me up.

Suddenly I stopped walking, which was no easy feat as the inertia of my significant body weight threatened to send me stumbling. There on the far side of the soccer field was a familiar muscular figure. It was the man from the drain, walking his dog. He was wearing a ridiculously oversized baseball cap over his face but I wasn’t fooled. I would recognize him anywhere. Despite my attempts to distract myself, he was all that I’d thought about over the last few days.

I waddled over to him as fast as I could, using the bush track behind the soccer field for cover. It wouldn’t do to scare him off. The man had stopped walking and was now crouching beside his dog to pet him. He was facing me directly. He would have seen me coming if the peak of his ridiculous baseball cap hadn’t been pulled down so low.

I was close enough now to let myself be seen. I burst from the bushes. The man looked up startled as he heard the sudden movement in the scrub. He jumped up defensively.

‘Why did you stop climbing the telegraph pole?’ I strode towards him as fast as my short, stumpy legs would carry me.

‘I told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ The man’s face scrunched up in outrage. As if he didn’t know what I was talking about. He knew very well.

‘Does your dog live in the stormwater drain with you?’ I had reached the man now. I tried to grab his dog’s collar so that the man couldn’t escape from me but the man predicted my move and pulled the dog away. My bulging hand swiped through the air pathetically.

‘You’re crazy, you know that? I don’t live in a drain, and neither does Geoffrey. We live on Lancaster-.’ The man caught himself mid-sentence, realising that he’d just given away some personal information. My luscious lips broke into a triumphant smile, pressing back the swollen roundness of my cheeks.

‘Stay away from me,’ the man said as he spun around and walked off. He pumped his muscular arms and long legs. I wanted to follow him but I had no chance at that pace.

I had a spring in my step as I shuffled home. I spent all of that evening phoning up the local vet surgeries. It was a little bit outside my usual direct approach, but the man had really pushed me to my limits. I had to find out what he was up to.

‘Hello, I’m just calling to see when my dog Geoffrey is due for his next vaccination?’

‘Sure, what name was that?’

‘I live on Lancaster.’ I cleverly avoided the question.

‘I’m sorry, we don’t seem to have you in our system,’ was the response to my first three phone calls. However I struck gold on the fourth call.

‘Ah yes, I see you here. 15 Lancaster Avenue, Geoffrey the border-collie? Geoffrey’s next vaccination isn’t until January next year.’

Success. I had the deviant’s address.

The next day at the supermarket passed frustratingly slowly. Brent didn’t show up to work that day so I had no chance to enquire further about his wife. The other packers dispersed when I entered the staffroom. They were showing obvious signs of remorse for the way they’d humiliated Brent the other day with their impolite snickering. Being as respected as me was both a blessing and a curse. It sometimes meant that I was lonely when people felt too ashamed to talk to me.

Kathryn was her typical tight-lipped self all day. I tried to ask her about the flowers and chocolate that Brent’s wife had bought the other day but Kathryn rather nastily told me to ‘mind my own business.’ It was obvious that Brent’s wife had got to her with her inexcusable and paranoid need for privacy.

Finally it was one pm and my early morning shift was over. I waddled purposefully out of the shop. Lancaster Avenue was only three blocks away from my own house. I began the slow journey over. The swish of my stockings against my thighs was making a different tune this time. Catch him! Catch him! Catch him! They seemed to say.

As I turned into Lancaster Avenue I tucked my sweat soaked brown ringlets behind my ears and scanned the street with my prominent brown eyes. There was no sign of the man. I checked the numbers on the letterboxes as I walked down the street. Three… five… seven… nine…eleven… thirteen… and finally, there it was number fifteen, the deviant’s home.

I let out a meaty sigh and wiped the sweat off my face. It was starting to dribble down my fat nose into my wide nostrils. If I was being honest, I felt a bit disappointed. The house was so… normal looking. It was a non-descript, single-storey house with a small front lawn. A low neat hedge bordered the fence line and a cute letter box sat upon a skinny wooden post at the front. My breath caught with excitement… there was no lock on the letterbox.

He’d asked for it. He was obviously a threat to the community with his sneaky behaviour and lies. I grasped the letterbox latch with my hot pink nails and lifted the lid. The letterbox was empty aside from a small parcel in a brown envelope. I reached in with my pudgy arm and took it out. There was no address on the envelope.

Checking again that the street was empty, I picked at the seal. When I’d loosened a corner I pushed my finger inside and began to gingerly run my finger under the seal. Unfortunately I underestimated the size of my finger. The envelope tore.

The man would know that his mail had been tampered with. Speed was of the essence now. Abandoning my former care, I tore open the rest of the envelope. Inside was a small, shiny black cube with one tiny hole on the side. I held the box up to my eye and peered inside, however I couldn’t see anything. I shook the cube. It seemed solid. I had no idea what it was.

Panicked that someone would catch me, I quickly stuffed the package into my handbag and shuffled away as fast as I could. When I got home I examined the cube again, however I discovered nothing extra from a second investigation. Annoyed, I discarded the cube on the kitchen bench. The little hole on the surface seemed to wink at me, teasingly. Frustrated, I went to have a shower and plan my next move.

The next few days were torment as I stewed about the situation. I had to find out more. My hunger for knowledge had siphoned away my appetite. I could only eat four cheeseburgers and two cans of coke at lunch, skipping my usual dessert of half a cheesecake; I barely even blinked an eye when Brent’s wife insisted on going through Kathryn’s busy check-out, even though I was available.

There was only one thing for it. I would have to break in. After work, again I waddled over to his house. Again, the coast was clear. Again, I approached the non-descript house, and opened the letterbox.

This time instead of a parcel I found a plain white, unaddressed envelope inside. Inflamed with suspicion, I reached in, pulled it out, and tore the envelope open. Inside was a key.

Perhaps the man was using the house as a place for depositing illicit goods. Leaving keys in unmarked envelopes certainly wasn’t the business of an innocent person.

I charged up to the door and rang the doorbell. No one answered. Excellent. He wasn’t home. I plunged the key into the lock. It slid in smoothly, a perfect match. Checking the street once more, I opened the door and stepped inside, closing the door behind me.

The front door opened into a corridor with a sitting room to the right. The lights were off but there was ample sunlight from the front windows to illuminate my surroundings. The sitting room was sparsely furnished and undecorated. I expected little more of a sewer rat. There was nothing of interest for me here.

I crept further down the corridor. The next door led to an open plan kitchen and family room. This room also had minimal furniture, although the walls appeared to be decorated. I crept inside to take a closer look.

One wall of the room was lined with pictures printed on plain A4 paper. The photos were pinned in a line on the wall. I leaned in closer for a better look. My jaw dropped in disbelief.

I recognized the first photo. It was a view of my supermarket from the outside. A customer was walking inside – causing the automatic glass doors to be wide open. The photographer had a perfect view of cash register number four. My register. They also had a perfect view of me resting with my flabby arm on the bench, my finger curling around my hair, and my large eyes staring outside, glazed with boredom. Attached to my name tag was a sticker advertising the supermarket’s Easter campaign. Easter had finished three weeks ago and we had now replaced the stickers with the next campaign. The photo must have been taken last month, before I’d ever even spoken to the man.

The familiar burn of outrage started creeping up my face. At the same time, I also felt a small twinge of pride spark in my belly. I looked handsomely wistful in the photo. It was no wonder that the man had it pinned on his lounge room wall.

I moved on to the next picture. It was a close-up of someone’s face. The nose was large, and piggy, and there was a dribble of sweat running down towards the person’s thick lips. A brown ringlet bounced next to the jaw line.

The spark in my stomach flared again as I recognised my comely features. Attractive as I was, the man still had no right to photograph me without my permission. I moved on, my nostrils flared huffily. The next photo was a close up of an eye. And there was no mistaking the bulging eyeball poking out of the wide socket. It was me and I was angry.

The pattern continued. The next photo captured my hands as I weighed the customer’s fruit… apples. The last time I’d processed so many apples was when the creepy man had come through my check-out. I remembered how silly they had looked sitting in that ridiculous picnic basket. But the man hadn’t been carrying a camera that day. He’d seemed genuinely surprised when I’d confronted him – so surprised that he’d waved the picnic basket in my face.

The picnic basket. The angle of these photos was perfectly in line with the various positions of the picnic basket as the man had come through the check-out. There must have been a hidden camera in the lining.

The indignation that surged through me at the invasion of my privacy felt thrilling. My heart was beating quickly and my body tingled from head to toe. I hurried onto the next photo, panting shallowly.

It was me, sneaking along the bush track beside the oval. The whole time when I’d thought I was being stealthy, the man must have been watching. Through the branches of the trees, you could just make out the wild, angry look on my face.

Then there I was in the next photo, bursting out of the shrubs, my hands waving in the air. My mouth was open in a sort of angry triumph as I approached him. I felt my stomach jolt with excitement.

Next I was grabbing for the dog. My mouth was open in shock as my hand swiped and missed. The camera angle was taken slightly from above. Then I remembered – that silly cap the man wore that day, covering his bald head. There must have been a camera inside of it.

The following photo really took my breath away. It was me in my house. It was a view of the lounge area, taken from the perspective of the kitchen. There was a various selection of these house photos, all taken from the same angle...

The strange black box that I’d retrieved from the letterbox. It was a trap. I’d been manipulated with the man’s well laid bait. In my pursuit of the truth, I’d been completely violated. A sweetly satisfying rage of self-importance swept through me.

The last photo was of me standing in my lounge room with my hands on my hips. There was something strange about my face. I leaned in to examine it more closely.

Suddenly there was a flash from the photo. I jolted my face back, startled. The fat of my neck wobbled in protest from the sharp movement. Then I heard a whirring noise from the far corner behind me. Startled, I swung around.

I’d been so focussed on the photos that I hadn’t noticed the printer. A piece of paper started to creep out bit by bit, as the printer worked the ink down the page. My startled face, began to appear, line by line. A hidden camera had been embedded inside the last photo.

It was the ultimate trap. The man had played me from the beginning, carefully laying out the pieces for me to follow. He must have known my reputation for pursuing the truth. He’d purposefully climbed out of the stormwater drain every morning at five am to lure me and capture my curiosity. He wanted me to see him, to confront him, to follow him. He wanted me to chase him. He wasn’t trying to hide - he was trying to let me discover him.

My hands went clammy and I felt weak at the knees. I didn’t know whether to run, hide, or cry. My body answered the question for me. I was too overweight and dehydrated to do any of those things. Instead I waddled slowly out of the room and further down the corridor. At the end of the corridor, there was one more door. It was closed.

I pushed it open slowly trying to hold back my panting breath. I stepped as lightly as I could into the darkened room, however my one hundred kilogram weight still slammed down loudly at the impact of my foot. I heard a manly cackle. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out the face of the man from the stormwater drain. He smiled at me as I entered, his eyes intensely focussed on mine.

‘You came,’ the man said. ‘I knew you were the one. As soon as I heard Brent’s wife complaining about your insidious busybody ways, I knew that you were the one.’

I was the one? I felt weak at the knees. I took a heavy gulp.

‘Me? You did all this for me?’ This was so different to our last reunion at the park. The air was charged with unfulfilled emotions.

‘It was nothing, nothing compared to what you did for me.’ The man continued staring into my eyes, as he stepped forwards and took my sweaty, round hands into his palms. ‘The way you faithfully watched me, every morning; The way you confronted me at the supermarket; The way you stalked me at the park; You broke into my letterbox; You took my mail..’ his voice started to rise with excitement.

‘It was only what anyone would do,’ I replied modestly, my voice catching in my throat. Finally someone appreciated my passion for detail.

‘No, it was more than that, so much more.’ Tears were starting to well up in the eyes of both of us. ‘For years I tried to tell people about my life, to interest them, but no one cared,’ he said.

‘For years I tried to ask people about their lives, to find out all the details, to show that I cared…but no one would tell me,’ I said.

The man raised my hands up to his heart.

‘You are such a special, special soul. I’ve never felt more wanted than when you pestered me like a predator. I would set up trap after trap for you, to capture the pure magnificence of you in the hunt; To feel your need to know. You look absolutely spectacular in your photos,’ he said.

I nodded. The man was right. I did look spectacular in the photos. I was the very vision of godliness in my pursuit of the truth. I was in my prime element when each shot had been taken. The man had such vision, such talent.

Standing as we were, face to face, my stomach was already almost touching his chest. I leaned in a few more millimetres until I was fully pressed against him.

I’d finally found the one.

She Hadn't Changed at all

Melanie had been fond of her most recent husband but she was fonder still of the two million dollar divorce payout she’d received when she left him.

I recognised her immediately. She was standing at the table of an outdoor inner-city bar, a well-known watering hole for investment bankers and business magnates. It had been five years since we’d seen last seen each other. Since then Melanie had been married and divorced twice, and acquired a small fortune in alimony. There was no question she was good at what she did.

She was leaning suggestively towards a tall man in a well-fitting grey suit. Everything about the man exuded power and money. He was exactly her type. He was looking past her into the crowd, swirling his boutique-beer bottle in his hand. He looked almost bored by her attention, which must have been a first for my old university friend. Melanie was never short of male admirers.

She was a stunning woman, gifted with thick, deep red-gold hair. Her skin had an amber glow that accentuated her perfect toothpaste commercial smile and large, dark-blue, doll like eyes. She was wearing a skin-tight emerald green dress with the confidence of someone who knows she looks good. I recognized it as one of her husband hunting uniforms. Her uniforms had proved extremely effective over the years.

Melanie glanced in my direction, her face breaking into a smile of recognition when she saw me. She touched the grey-suited man beguilingly on the arm, before tottering towards me in her burgundy satin heels. I couldn’t help noticing the other men at the bar stopped talking and watched as she flowed past them, immediately distracted by her body moving beneath the tight dress.

‘Isla! It’s so good to see you.’ She gave me a side-cheek kiss and an airy hug, her breasts brushing against me. She still had her slim figure from university, but her chest was suspiciously plumper than the last time I’d received one of her hugs. I wondered if husband number two had funded that before or after the divorce.

She took my arm in the same conspiratorial manner in which she used to grab me when we gossiped about boys during our university days.

‘Isla, I’ve just met the next man for me. He just came up to me at the bar, like as if he knew me! He’s a real challenge, a stubborn one though. He doesn’t seem interested in me yet. But come and watch me break him. If he’s not married to me by the end of the year, I’ll eat my dress.’

She hadn’t changed at all. The annoying thing was she was probably right. I’d witnessed it all too many times in the past - the way she could turn an unyielding (and rich) man into her generous play-thing.

But it had been five years and things had changed. There was something I really needed to tell her before she got too far into her escapade. However, there was no chance as her manicured talons pulled me insistently towards the grey-suited man.

The man looked up at us approaching. The bored expression I’d seen on him from afar had disappeared and he smiled eagerly. Melanie gave me a knowing wink.

‘I knew he’d come around,’ she said in my ear. ‘Now we’re in business.’

She gave his arm another provocative squeeze as we joined the table. The man started to say something, but she cut him off with a hand on his chest.

‘Isla, Tom. Tom, Isla. There. Now that introductions are done, Tom, could you get us some champagne?’

Tom laughed. ‘You’re funny. Sure, OK, whatever you ladies need.’ He walked off obligingly, but not before taking another glance at us.

Melanie gave me a triumphant smirk. ‘Complete turn-around since I showed him my backside. I think I hear wedding bells.’

I really needed to tell her something before we got too far into our night.

‘Enough about me, darling!’ she said before I could get my thoughts together. ‘Tell me about you! I heard you got married.’

Finally I had a moment alone with her and the spot light was on me. I could tell her. So much had changed.

‘I did. He’s-‘

‘Look around here, at all these men! There are just so many good looking, rich men here. I’m so glad I cashed in on the last old codger so I could choose again. I think the men just get richer and more handsome as the years go by. Don’t you Isla?’ She paused to look at my face which was probably looking a bit pinched with stifled frustration. ‘Oh dear, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t rub it in now you’re off the market with what’s-his-face from the back office.’

Suddenly I didn’t feel like talking anymore. She could only blame herself if she didn’t hear the news from me first.

‘Don’t you think that out of all the men here tonight, Tom is the most handsome?’ she asked me.

At least I could answer that one honestly. I’d noticed him even before I’d noticed her. In fact, I doubted there was any woman in the bar who hadn’t seen him.

‘Definitely,’ I said. ‘And he’s-‘

‘…all mine, I know,’ she incorrectly finished my sentence. I should really tell her, but I was starting to not care anymore.

I could predict what was coming next and I knew I might as well play along. Melanie’s tactics were always the same. To win a rich man, you had to pretend you were rich until he was too far in love to care. ‘No man likes a gold digger,’ she used to say. Nowadays Melanie didn’t need to pretend she was wealthy – she really was. I could be sure she would still give Tom a lavish demonstration in order to safely secure him though.

Tom arrived back with our champagne and we all clinked glasses. His cheeks were flushed and he was smiling. His spirits had definitely lifted since I’d first seen him talking to Melanie.

She was right on cue.

‘I know we were just planning a quiet girls night, but now Tom’s joined us, I think we should celebrate. I have a crazy idea…let’s go for a helicopter ride over Sydney. It’s on me! My driver can pick us up from here.’

Tom raised his eyebrows. He hadn’t expected that one.

‘I’m in. Let’s do it,’ I said quickly before Tom could object. I easily stepped back into my old role of enabler to Melanie’s cons.

Melanie smiled at me appreciatively, then nudged me quietly in the arm.

‘Something fancy to tell the old man about when you get home, hey?’

I gritted my teeth. The old man was going to have something to talk about all right. If I didn’t tell her, that is.

‘How about you Tom?’ Melanie put her predatory talons on his chest again.

He looked unsure about accepting Melanie’s hospitality and glanced at me while he thought about it. I nodded encouraging. No one could accuse me of being an unsupportive friend.

‘Sure, why not. If Isla’s in, then so am I. Thanks Melanie, that’s really generous of you.’

Melanie laughed and waved her hands dismissively. ‘Oh it’s nothing, really.’ She tapped on her phone, typing out a text message. ‘My driver’s just on the street now, ready to go.’ She raised her champagne glass in the air.

‘To living like teenagers!’ she said. She arched her back and threw back her champagne in one gulp. She was drinking like a teenager but I doubted there were any teenagers who treated their crushes to helicopter rides on a whim.

‘Let’s go!’ she said.

Tom shrugged, and raised his glass, looking at me. I raised my glass to join him and together we sculled our champagne.

The black hire car was waiting for us as we reached the street. I knew what I was supposed to do, but Melanie made sure there could be no doubt in my mind. She shuffled me into the front seat next to the driver so she could monopolise Tom in the back.

The drive to the scenic tours helipad would be Melanie’s time to implement her next tactic. Let the man talk about himself – particularly about any boring passions that most people tire of hearing about. Melanie had passed on that little gem to me in first year. I’d had to endure a whole lunch break of her pretending to be enthralled by the software engineering project of a guy whose dad had free tickets to the U2 concert.

Sure enough, Melanie, with an instinct for ferreting out unappreciated pet-passions, asked Tom about his collection of bicycle night lights. Tom chatted away happily. Meanwhile Melanie showed no penchant for her usual mindless interruptions. As I started to drift off to Tom’s boring bicycle prattle, I thought perhaps Melanie did deserve some of the money she collected from her conquests. No one in their right mind could be enjoying this conversation.

The driver opened the door for me, and we stepped out into the helipad car park. Melanie, of course, allowed herself to be assisted by the suddenly helpful Tom. A helicopter was taking off in the vicinity, causing the wind to blow hard. Melanie squealed flirtatiously, her flaming hair blowing wildly in the wind. It was a shame her dress was already so tight. I’m sure she would have enjoyed the opportunity to pull off a Marilyn Monroe impersonation.

Following Melanie’s lead, we ran inside the helipad terminal, laughing with the frivolity of the situation. Who would have thought we’d be here on a Friday night? How lucky we were to have such a rich benefactor like Melanie.

The helicopter was waiting for us – Melanie’s driver had phoned ahead to book us on the next available flight – the twilight tour. I hoped Tom appreciated the romance of the moment. Melanie had really refined her routine over the years. He was getting the best her courtship had to offer.

The flight was spectacular. I enjoyed it even more than when I’d last taken it – with Melanie’s third husband. We soared over Sydney’s eastern and northern beaches, the harbour headlands, and the city. The noise from the helicopter stifled any chance at conversation but when I glanced back at Tom (I’d been hustled to the front seat again), it was obvious he was enjoying it.

We had another glass of champagne in the helipad terminal after our flight. Tom insisted on buying the drinks after Melanie’s generosity with the flights. Melanie inched her chair provocatively closer to Tom. However Tom was oblivious. He asked about how Melanie and I knew each other so I gave him the toned down version of our university days.

As Tom laughed at my story, I felt a sharp kick in my shins. Melanie was jerking her head towards the door, whilst her eyes were fixed on me, looking slightly wild. I hadn’t seen her for five years and we hadn’t caught up at all tonight. We’d been too wrapped up in her hunt. But I was a good friend, and I could take a hint.

‘Well, I’d better get going,’ I stood up abruptly. ‘It was good to see you again Melanie.’

‘Yes, nice to meet you Melanie,’ Tom said, standing up and shaking Melanie’s hand in a business-like manner. Melanie stood there speechless. Her face was twitching spasmodically.

‘You don’t want to stay a little longer?’ she said, ignoring me, and staring directly into Tom’s eyes.

‘Better not - got an early start in the morning. Lovely to meet you though.’

I started backing away towards the door as Melanie’s eyes narrowed in disbelief. It was probably the first time she’d ever lost her prey. This was not going to be pretty. Tom was on my heels out the door too.

Fortuitously, at that moment a taxi pulled up, dropping off some passengers. Tom and I jumped in together.

‘Belrose please,’ I said. The taxi driver nodded and began to drive.

Tom leaned over and gave me a kiss on the cheek. ‘She’s a funny woman, that friend of yours. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. She likes to touch people a lot. She’s sort of super friendly but cold at the same time. She didn’t even congratulate us on our wedding.’

‘You didn’t tell her you were my husband when you arrived at the bar? I told her you were meeting us at there,’ I said.

‘No, I didn’t get a chance. I couldn’t get a word in about you. She kept firing questions at me about my hobbies and when I mentioned my bike lights she started interrogating me. I’ve never known anyone who was so interested in bike lights. It was probably the most boring conversation of my life. I was so happy when you arrived! Why? Didn’t you tell her I was your husband when you arrived?’

‘No, I didn’t get a chance. She was too busy telling me about how you were the next man she would marry and how she was going to win you over.’

‘You mean to tell me the whole night, she had no idea you and I were married?’

‘Yup, that’s right,’ I said. Tom’s face went blank to confused to outraged as he began to comprehend the situation.

I should have told her I suppose…

Bryony's Beautiful Hair

Every day Rita scratched me, I stepped on Kat’s toes, and Kat pushed Nicole. The girls in Mrs Farmer’s class would do anything to sit on the floor behind Bryony during show and tell.

Bryony had the best hair of any girl in year three. It was long and thick with a deep black colour that shone like a freshly polished school shoe. It smelt like an ocean breeze and felt like a silky waterfall. Bryony would let us comb it with her sparkly, rainbow coloured comb. The glittering comb would glide smoothly through Bryony’s shimmering knot-free hair.

Mrs Farmer didn’t usually let us do each other’s hair when we were sitting on the floor but she didn’t mind if we were playing with Bryony’s hair. No one could deny Bryony anything. Her hair was too beautiful.

I desperately wanted to have hair like Bryony. People were instantly drawn to her. The first day I’d noticed her hair she’d been wearing a scarf. I wanted to be just like her so the next day I wore a scarf to school too. I wasn’t the only one. Every girl in the class had done the same thing. Scarves weren’t in the school uniform policy but the teachers allowed it since it was beautiful Bryony who had started the trend.

Even my mum wasn’t immune to Bryony’s hair. Every day when I got home from school mum would ask me about my friend with the stunning hair. Mum never talked about my hair.

Strangely, Bryony never actually spoke to anyone. When I’d first noticed her hair I’d tried to ask her about it but she’d just shrugged and shown me her sparkly comb. I’d tried to use the comb on my hair but Bryony made a panicked whinny sound and grabbed it off me before I could use it. However, she didn’t say anything. She did the same thing whenever anyone tried to use her comb.

After that, I became obsessed with using Bryony’s comb. I wanted to see if it made my hair as beautiful as hers. I would comb Bryony’s hair and then when I thought she was distracted, I’d try to comb my own hair. Unfortunately she always managed to whip around and snatch the comb off me before it could touch a single strand of my hair.

That’s why the other day when I was brushing Bryony’s hair I’d purposefully plucked a long strand of hair from her head. She’d jumped and given her trademark whinny sound, but as always, she didn’t say anything. After she’d settled back down, I carefully tied one end of the stray hair to the comb. I continued combing her hair until show and tell was over. Then I gave the comb back to Bryony, making sure that I kept hold of the end of the hair. Luckily the strand was so long that she didn’t notice. She put the comb back in her pocket.

As we stood up to go back to our seats, I gave the hair a strong tug. The comb fell from Bryony’s pocket and swung on the tied hair towards my waiting hands. I quickly slipped the comb into my pocket before anyone noticed.

All day I was petrified that Bryony would realise her comb was missing and tell Mrs Farmer. Finally the school bell rang and I escaped with my stolen treasure.

At home, I stood in front of the mirror and stared at myself. My mousey brown hair was straight and short, nothing like Bryony’s long luscious black locks. I desperately hoped this would work. I tugged off the scarf that I’d worn to school that day and threw it on my bed. Then I went back to the mirror and took a deep breath. Shutting my eyes I ran the comb through my hair.

Suddenly I smelt an ocean breeze, just like the smell of Bryony’s hair. The comb slid through my hair smoothly without catching on any knots, as if my hair was a silky waterfall. I almost opened my eyes in surprise. My hair always had knots. Then I noticed something else. The comb hadn’t reached the end of my hair – it was continuing to slide! Keeping my eyes shut, I ran the comb down as far as it could go. Finally it came free at my knees. My eyes burst open and I stared at myself in the mirror with a gaping mouth.

My mousey short hair had transformed into a golden wave down to my knees. It shimmered and sparkled under the bathroom light. I was beautiful. I could feel my heart beating faster with excitement. I was going to be the most popular girl in the school! I flicked my hair back gracefully over my shoulder…

That’s when I realised. My hair didn’t stop at my head. Long golden hair sprouted from the back of my neck all the way down my back. I could feel it running down the back of my school dress. I pulled my dress over my head and stared at myself in total shock in the mirror. I had a mane of hair all the way down my back. My hair was thick and lustrous, like a horse!

Panicked, I ran to the kitchen to tell my mum. As I ran, I felt the wind on my face, and it felt so good, so liberating. I took long horsey strides. I could run faster than I’d ever imagined and I reached the kitchen in record time. My mum gasped when she saw me arrive with my school dress off and my long golden hair draping over my body, completely covering me.

‘Mum!’ I tried to say, but instead a strange whinny came out ‘Neeeeeigh!’

All at once the truth hit me. I would have to wear a scarf and keep quiet for the rest of my life. I’d become a human-shaped horse.

But at least I had beautiful hair like Bryony.