Kate checked her hair in the hallway mirror one last time, tucking a stray lock back behind her ear and smoothing it down once more. She felt like a teenager off on her first date. She felt the pull of lust and desire growing inside of her and tugging her heart strings. Standing in front of her reflection she took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Pull it together woman,” she said to herself. “It’s just dinner.”
Leaving her phone on the second hand hardwood hallway table she picked up her house keys and the bottle of red, locking the door behind her.
Across the road Joan fussed over the food she was preparing, wanting everything to be perfect, even more so than normal. She had arrived home earlier than usual, actually leaving work at her finishing time for a change. On her way home she had stopped by the local market for fresh produce to make her special prawn linguini. It wasn’t often she cooked it, and she wanted everything to be just right. The table was set with silverware, china, crystal, and linen. Only the best of her items made it to the setting. The candles were lit. The record player was churning out one of her favourite classical opera melodies and she couldn’t even enjoy it as her nerves gripped her stomach and kept her mind on edge.
Straightening herself she felt a sudden anxiety in the pit of her stomach as she quickly washed her hands and dried them on a clean tea towel. It felt like a monster inside had gripped its clawed hands around her delicate organs and was squishing them in an icy cold grip. She took a deep breath and chastised herself for being so silly; it was just dinner after all.
Her heels clicked on the floorboards and with a quick glance she checked her reflection in the mirror on her way to the entrance door, running her hand over her hair to calm the invisible strays. Forcing a warm smile despite the anxiety she reached for the handle on the solid door and counted herself down from her highly strung mental habitat. Three, her hand touched the metal of the door handle, gripping it just tightly enough. Two, one deep breath in, slowly exhaled and a gentle push down on the handle to open the locking mechanism. One, pull the door open.
Kate stood on the doorstep in the alcove wearing a florally summer dress in hues of white, blue and purple that ended just below her knees, flat sandals, and her hair draped around her jaw line in a neat hairstyle that was longer at the front and tapered up to the back of her neck. The highlights and tips of blonde seemed to sparkle in the light and added a whole new dimension to the bronze skin that it framed. She looked stunning.
“Welcome, come in.” Joan stepped aside and felt the waft of air that carried a scent of vanilla and jasmine as Kate walked through the door. Joan closed the door behind her visitor and mentally felt herself calm slightly as the infusion of smells settled in the bottom of her lungs.
“This place is beautiful Joan,” Kate’s surprise was evident in the astonishment in her voice as she looked around the large open space.
The house was far bigger on the inside than it looked from outside, the modern architecture certainly doing its job. Red face brick spoke worlds of texture and character from most of the walls, the entire floor was open plan loft-style without being a loft. Kitchen, dining, lounge all combined in one big open space with high ceilings and large bi-fold doors opening to a decked courtyard close by and to the backyard at the rear. Open stairs led to the second floor and three doors led to what Kate assumed would be the garage, bathroom and laundry on the ground floor she was looking around. The kitchen walls brought a creamy white colour to the picture with the cupboards, pantry and drawers all lightening the space and the white granite bench top carried grains of greys and black. The floors were a dark timber board highly lacquered to reflect the down lights, making the space look even bigger again.
“Thank you, it certainly fits my purposes.” Joan’s voice was tight as she struggled with her nerves once more. “Come, sit, make yourself at home, I’m just preparing dinner now, it should be ready in fifteen minutes or so.”
Kate watched as she washed her hands and continued chopping fresh veggies. A pot was on the stove boiling and the raw prawn flesh was sitting in a bowl of ice beside the stove. She placed her keys down on the side table beside the small bowl that held Joan’s. Shoulder epaulettes with their little golden crowns were stacked to the right of Joan’s key bowl, and a neat stack of hair pins sat to the left. Everything in the house was in perfect order, perfect alignment, and was perfectly clean. Pristine in the way you would expect a display house to be, not a home that was actually lived in.
A stunning painting hung on the wall beside the entryway as a welcoming work of art, and on the adjoining wall was an arrangement of tribal masks from all around the world. Kate wondered if Joan was a traveller or simply a collector. From the information she had gained from Joan so far her better judgement leaned towards the latter.
“You’re a fencer?” Kate asked in surprise as her eyes fell upon a fencing sword displayed with a mask upon a black wood buffet beside a picture of a younger Joan and an older man.
“Yes, I still partake in the sport every now and then after work. It was an old hobby instilled in me by my father.”
Kate’s eyes continued to take in the features around her, a black Faberge egg sat within a domed glass display bell, several other antique items from around the world took spaces on the shelving which made Kate wonder if her original assumption had been incorrect. More paintings and pictures that could have been worth thousands of dollars brightened up the long stretches of walls, and a violin that looked to be in excellent condition and very, very old sat on a stand on the buffet unit behind the black timber dining table. Much of her furniture and decorative items were dark in colour bringing a whole other layer to the house. Kate was impressed at the layout and how Joan had made it her own.
Joan watched from her peripheral vision as Kate looked around her house and the items she had chosen to put on display. She watched for small reactions and indications of emotion from the woman she felt so drawn to. Kate worked her way slowly through to the kitchen at the far end of the open space and traced her finger along a particularly dark grain line in the bench top as she approached Joan on the other side of the bench.
“How has your week been?” Joan asked as she concentrated on the job at hand to calm herself as Kate drew close to her once more. She was not used to feeling the pull of emotions that were rushing through her body, and she wasn’t particularly ready to talk about herself too much either, not yet.
“Busy actually, we’ve had a lot on at work, some difficult cases. But I’m glad to have a nice 9 to 5 job at last.” Kate placed the bottle of wine at the far end of the bench top and took a seat at the breakfast bar right in front of Joan as she sliced a chunk of sweet potato into thin ribbons with a razor sharp knife.
Joan’s stomach did a back flip as Kate sat right in front of her and tucked the front of her hair behind her left ear, her tear drop earring rocked back and forth catching glimpses of the bright white down lights and twinkled at Joan. She looked up at the woman and noticed the lovely bronze colour of her skin and how it seemed to glow with a dewy shine in the bright space of the kitchen. She took in the mousey brown hair with the blonde highlights on the top and tips at the ends as it stopped just millimetres above her eyebrows in a jagged fringe and framed her face. The scar above her left eyebrow was almost hidden with her fringe arranged how it was that night. Joan noticed that some of the strands Kate had just tucked behind her ear had fallen forwards again, sparkling in the down lights. Joan desperately wanted to reach across the bench and tuck them back into place, running her fingertips along Kate’s jaw line as she withdrew her hand.
Her hand actually twitched as she thought about the movement and how Kate’s skin would feel beneath her fingertips and before she knew it the knife was down, her hand reached across the bench and tenderly touched against Kate’s temple as she collected those stray strands and tucked them away again. Her fingers traced along Kate’s lower jaw and chin gently and she noticed there were the slightest lines just starting to take shape at the corners of her mouth and bright green eyes as her fingers returned back to the knife they were previously working with.
It fit the picture now that Joan knew her age. “You haven’t actually told me what it is that you do,” she commented quickly to completely change the subject and deflect from her own actions as Kate’s bright green eyes sparkled from the delicate form of intimacy she had just received.
Joan already knew from her henchman what field Kate worked in, and where, and how long for, but tonight was mainly a fact finding mission to see if everything checked out. Mentally she slapped herself for her brief slip in control, but she had greatly enjoyed the feel of Kate’s skin on her fingertips and the look in her neighbour’s eyes as they sparkled up at her with curiosity and desire.
“I’m a forensic pathologist. I was a practicing doctor in general surgery for the last few years, mainly working through Doctors Without Borders, and had enough of the fast life. It was great, fresh out of med school I was flown to Tunisia for my first 12 month placement. I trained in general surgery abroad during my third and forth years away then completed my final internship coming home for a six month stint. Since then I travelled the third worlds mainly through Africa healing the sick and wounded. I had enough of illness and watching people die from preventable diseases. I wanted to settle down and have a home, a life, friends, a local haunt and all the other good things that you don’t realise you’re missing until you’re done with the work.
“So after my last placement I was at one of the local pubs in the town I was working in. Dingy little place that you could barely call a pub, more like a shack, but the beer was cold and most of us would head down there every few days to support the economy. I was having a laugh with the crew after telling them that I’d had enough and was going to go home after this stretch was over. The African shack owner had a map of Australia and asked me where home was, I pinned it up to the wall and literally threw a dart at it and it landed on Melbourne. So I researched, job hunted, couch surfed and finally landed a forever home.”
“A forever home,” Joan repeated with a smile, easing into the conversation as the information from her source was corroborated by the woman in question. “Sounds like a rescue pet.”
“I am a rescue pet,” Kate laughed light heartedly.
Joan put down the knife and looked up into those green eyes that didn’t show any laughter whatsoever. She knew the truth, but she needed to hear it from Kate, she needed to know whether or not Kate would tell her the truth. “What do you mean by that?”
“I grew up in the system,” Kate’s voice faltered slightly as she opened up about her past, but as much as Joan was a complete stranger to her Kate felt that she trusted her deeply already. “I had one good family, but then they fell apart and I got sent back to the foster family bounce. I knew the only way I would get out was to make my own way out. I studied like hell. All I ever wanted to do was to help heal people. So I conferred with the counsellors at school, did all the subjects and extracurricular items to get where I wanted to be, got out as soon as I could and did a double major in General Practice and Mental Health through Curtin.”
“Sounds like quite a ride for a young woman.” Joan knew she wasn’t bragging about the achievements, a few nights previous her burner phone had rung and the man who earned his money had told her the same story, in his own words. They had been on the phone for 20 minutes while Joan soaked in all she could about the woman who lived across the street.
Kate simply shrugged her shoulders; she had lived in worse places with worse people for most of her childhood. Africa was a breeze compared to the life she had become accustomed to in foster care, even with some of the people she had faced, some of the things she had seen and some of the things she had been forced to do while travelling third world countries. She firmly believed Africa was safer than foster care. “I learned early on that life’s a bitch; you have to make it your own.”
“Isn’t that just the truth.” Washing her hands again Joan opened the freezer and pulled out the bottle of vodka with two frozen shot glasses. She poured them each a drink and passed one to Kate. Raising her own she offered a toast. “To owning life.”
“To owning life.”
They clicked their glasses together and Kate took hers in one mouthful while Joan merely took a sip, intent on remaining in complete control for the night.
“Can I help with anything?” Kate asked as Joan continued preparing the food.
“Not at all, you can simply sit there and look stunning.” The smile played on her lips as her black eyes searched Kate’s and she noticed the first signs of a blush creeping up her neck along with a cheeky smile that made her eyes glitter.
“What about you Joan? How has your week at work been?” Kate suddenly felt like she had spilled her whole life story and knew nothing about the woman she was divulging to. It was unusual for Kate to open up to strangers, she made friends easily but not many people got to know the deeper details of who she was or why. She didn’t know why she trusted Joan so deeply so quickly, but it didn’t feel wrong.
“Well, there is a loaded question indeed.” Joan let out a long, slow breath and thought for a minute about what she could and couldn’t say mainly due to privacy. “Let’s see. I have a Neanderthal of an officer who just keeps making stupid mistake after stupid mistake, and I have another officer whose ego drives him to assert his authority at every corner like a male dog. Those two idiots are at each others’ throats over some personal dispute at the moment and I’m a bit tired of handing out warnings. I have a meek little deputy who doesn’t know whether to run from me in fear or to me for protection and is far too caught up with her home life and the emotional entanglements of others. I have inmates who want to kill each other. A transgender...” she searched for the right word, “person...” she said the word almost with malice as she could not decide whether to call the post op individual a man or a woman. “Who is either going to get ripped to shreds or is going to rip everyone else to shreds. And then there is the General Manager who doesn’t think I’m doing such a great job at all right now.” Joan took another sip of her vodka before placing a fry pan on the stove and turning off the boiling water, she suddenly felt as though there was a surge of emotions running through her and she had no idea why.
“Sounds brutal.” Kate merely cocked an eyebrow as she absorbed all the drama that was Joan’s working life. She wanted to show her neighbour that she was there to listen and let her get things off her chest.
“Quite. It’s an interesting game the corrections industry, but it can be very rewarding.”
All night Joan fished cautiously for the information she already knew, just waiting to see if she would be lied to or misdirected. At the end of the night she wasn’t quite sure if she was glad or disappointed that she didn’t receive any conflicting data at all.
Kate was warm and giggly as Joan walked her to the front door. “Thanks for dinner, it was lovely. You’ll have to give me the recipe for that pasta.”
“No way,” Joan joked. “Personal secret.” She too was happy and content. Joan had greatly enjoyed herself and found that she very much enjoyed the company of her neighbour. It was nice to spend more than 20 minutes with her and to be able to sit on the same couch. They had giggled and bantered. Joan had opened up more tonight than she had done in many, many years. And for once it felt good.
“Maybe I’ll have to get to know you a bit more personally then,” Kate joked with a wink.
Joan flushed at the implication and was glad the lighting was dull without the overhead light on at the front door.
Kate rose to her tippy toes and brushed her lips against Joan’s cheek in a quick peck as she stepped past her onto the landing. “Goodnight Governor.” With one last smile Kate turned and walked down the small path to the driveway and home.
Her stomach was in knots of anxiety, surprise, and what she could only pinpoint as lust as her fingers touched the spot on her cheek that tingled from the brush of her neighbours lips. Joan closed the front door and leant her back against it as she gave in to the emotions washing over her for the first time in years.
And for the first time in years she didn’t feel the impulse to wash away the touch of another human being on her skin.