Cassandra L Atherton: “Neck”
Cassandra Atherton is a Melbourne writer and critic. She lectures in
Creative Writing and Romanticism at The University of Melbourne. Her book of poetry, After Lolita, was published earlier this year by Ahadada Press and her first novel, The Man Jar, was published in September by Printed Matter Press. Her short stories and poems have been published in Australian and international journals. She is currently working on a book, Wise Guys, examining the role and responsibility of the American public intellectual, after interviewing Noam Chomsky, Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, Stephen Greenblatt and many more. She is writing her second novel, Cherry Bomb, set in Japan after receiving a fellowship to study the floating world.
She always wore her hair in a chignon. It was one of the first things he noticed about her. Silver-blonde hair swept back with a diamante barrette, always in aqua. He never saw her face then, as he was always running late and entering at the back of the lecture theatre, always sitting behind her. It was the back of her neck that got him through all those Psychology lectures. He began to time the lectures, searching for a pattern. His notebook was filled with useless words, nonsense figures and in the margins were endless sketches of her neck. Once, when he thought he was ready, she wore a strapless dress. He left in disgust.
He watched her strawberry birthmark watch him. Tiny and bulbous, it hid amongst the pale hairs to the right of her neck, a smooth crimson circle. He began taking a red pen into the lectures with him, perfecting the birthmark, positioning it over and over in his folder. Once he even stabbed his finger and let the bright red bead drip onto the page. He smiled, looking at the back of her neck, it was the closest he’d come, but when he shut the folder it smudged.
A guest lecturer was scheduled to speak on visual perception. He opened his notebook and began to think. At lunchtime he bought sixteen backpacks and placed them on a combination of seats in the last six rows. He entered late and searched for the back of her neck. Second last row three seats in from the end. Perfect. He sat behind her in the back row and unzipped his bag. He placed it on the seat next to him and tucked his heavy coat around it. Staring at the back of her neck, he waited. A young woman entered half way through the lecture and tried to sit in the back row. He coughed, a hacking cough he saved for special occasions and sniffed loudly until she moved to the third row. As the lecturer pressed the Play button, he reached for the camera nestling in his overcoat. As the lecturer apologised and pressed the button for the second time, his hand trembled with anticipation. And as the lecturer ducked behind the podium, he aimed at the back of her neck, clicking the shutter as the theatre lights dimmed and the video began. Perfect, he smiled. “Perfect,” said the lecturer from behind the podium.
He hid it in his bag and smuggled it out of the lecture theatre. It throbbed in the darkness beneath the zipper. He kept his eyes downcast, running a sweaty palm through his black hair. She was just ahead of him as he shuffled down the steps. He could hear the staccato beat of her stilettos on the concrete. He drew his coat around him. He started to sweat. Tiny beads of salt water clung to his forehead while he thought of the bright bead on the back of her neck. Two thousand six hundred and forty two more steps and he would be at his car parked in Bouverie Street. She would turn the corner in another one hundred and twenty-four steps at the Baillieu to research her thesis on states of consciousness. Once he sat behind her at a desk in the stacks. He filled four sketchbooks and used two number four Derwents replicating the fine silver hairs creeping down her neck. Bouverie Street. He thought of Emma Bovary. She would have had a fantastic neck. He coaxed the car into action, the bag sat on the passenger seat, its strap looped over the handbrake. He patted it softly, stroking the small hard cylinder in the centre, imagining the image coiled inside. Not too much longer. He locked and unlocked the door six times, each turn of the key in the lock calming him with its familiar rhythm. The loud clicking noises brought Cat to the door. She wound herself in between his legs, shedding her fine silver coat on his trouser cuffs. Her saucer was empty so he poured her some strawberry milk from the carton and reached for his brown mug on the top shelf. It didn’t seem so long ago that his sister had given it to him. A twenty-first present. She made it in pottery, painting his name in a big blue flourish on the side. He traced the letters with his finger as Cat lapped up the milk. The curly capital S was his favourite. Simon. There was a blue ink spot in the shape of a butterfly for a full stop. He pictured it on a large polished wood desk. A couch in the corner. He poured a combination of lemonade and orange juice into his mug and headed for the darkroom. Cat curled into a contented ball on the cushion. He entered his darkroom and sat stiffly on the wooden stool. He took the roll of film out of his bag, stroking the cylinder with his thumb. He looked up at the thousands of sketches of her neck and mentally decided where he would hang the photograph. He pictured it on the wall in his bedroom, the small half-crescent table adorned with mango-scented candles and lilies floating in bowls of peach-coloured water. The gentle flame of the candle would reflect teardrops of gold onto her lily neck. He looked down at the roll of film pressing it to his lips. For the first time he began to wonder what her name was.
* * *
Black and white photograph. Shiny. Tempting. Glistening. Now he could kiss the back of her neck. He teased her tiny mole with his tongue, until a moist mist clung to the glass of the picture frame, obscuring his view. He nuzzled the delicious down at the base of her neck, imagining green apple shampoo foam gliding slowly down her neck. He pictured the crystal beads of water leaping from the shower rose. He shivered, thinking about how that neck would taste, wet. He hung the picture frame on the wall, watching the gentle flame of the mango candle lick at her graceful neck. Cat licked his bare ankle, a raw, rough demand for food. He reached into his pocket for some Go-Cat and sprinkled the tiny biscuits on the carpet. They rained down on Cat’s head, a shower of smoky bacon biscuits. He licked his fingers and picked up his lecture pad from the bedside table. Reddish-brown biscuit crumbs glued themselves to the cracks in his bottom lip. He switched off the lamp, tugging at its long white cord with his toes, urging the plug out of the wall. Cat crunched on her last two treats. He shook his black backpack, making sure his keys were safely tucked in the front pocket, smiling when he heard their familiar jingle. He carefully walked to the kitchen on his tiptoes, twenty-six steps without lowering his heels to the cream carpet. He placed one totally smooth and unbruised Royal Gala apple into a brown paper bag, two Coco Pop Breakfast Bars and a flask of apricot nectar in the back pocket of his backpack. Thirty-two steps to the front door.
He locked the door, checking the door handle six times to make sure it was locked. The cold, hard metal bit into the flesh between his thumb and first finger as he tried the door one last time, his moist palm fogging up the shiny silver of the handle. With the edge of his coat he wiped the moist droplets away, creating a series of sweaty streaks. Cat pawed the left window as he got into his small orange car and drove away.
He drove feverishly, his hot hands sliding around the steering wheel. He turned into Bouverie Street. His car park was empty. He sighed and smiled, pulling into the familiar space. The street was deserted except for the metallic blue Honda Civic down near the pub. He got out and checked the meter. His watch beeped once. Four thirty. Perfect timing. It was a “use twenty cents only” parking meter. He liked this meter much more than all the others. It was clean and none of the stickers were peeling off. With the twenty- cent meter he could always be sure that he was not being ripped off. Too often people slipped a dollar or two dollar coin into the slot of a more recent machine and never used the full four hours. It was such a waste. He rattled the small cylinder in his pocket. He carried his twenty-cent pieces in there now. He even made a label for it with his calligraphy pen. The sweeping number two figure looked much like her neck. The zero, he imagined was the back of her head. If you looked closely you could see the tiny strawberry birthmark he perfectly placed on each figure. He got back into the car. You didn’t have to pay for the meter until eight o’clock. His lecture was at half past one. Only nine more hours.
* * *
She was running late. Very late. It was so unlike her to be late, but he supposed she had a reason to be. She climbed the back steps to the door of the lecture theatre. She unclipped her diamante barrette, smoothed back her hair and reclipped it into place. She pushed open the door and slipped into the nearest empty seat. The envelope was still in her hand. The corners were damp and rounded. “We regret to inform you.” Regret, she thought, “No, non je ne regrette rien.” Edith Piaf. Coffee. The two were inseparable. She decided that if she ever became rich enough she’d set up a scholarship for students who had been screwed by the system. She smiled the first smile for two days. He was wriggling in the seat next to her, bumping into her armrest, causing a mini commotion as he began snapping shut his four lecture pads and a tin of Derwent pencils. People turned around and shushed him. The lecturer glared fiercely. “It’s O.K,” she whispered, “just sit down and you can sneak out in a minute.”
He picked up his books and ran. The back door slammed shut behind him. She sighed and tucked the letter into her breast pocket. One yellow lecture pad lay open on the patterned carpet.
She thought they were just squiggles at first. A bored person’s doodles. Hieroglyphics. Walk Like An Egyptian. She could still remember that dance from high school. She would still argue that Manic Monday was better. The Bangles. Bracelets. She wondered if she’d ever be able to afford a chunky gold bracelet with a padlock. “Not this year,” she though, thinking about the letter. It was only when she picked up the notepad that she realised that the squiggles were actually female necks. Women’s napes or rather one nape repeated over and over. She flicked through the book. No writing, just thousands of squiggly necks. It was not until late that night, just before she was about to switch off her lamp that she realised it was her neck. Her nape. Her strawberry birthmark.
* * *
She returned his lecture pad. He wouldn’t look at her. She figured he was just embarrassed. “You’ll have to find another model,” she told him, “I’m completing my Masters in Tasmania. Leaving next Monday.” Manic Monday, she thought. He looked pale. Black hair, black coat, and black bag. So pale.
“Sorry.” She wondered why she was apologising.
“I missed out on a scholarship by point one of a mark.” She wondered why she was telling him this.
“I’ve got family there, you know. Won’t be so bad.” He still didn’t look up.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
* * *
He was a lunatic. He had to be. A total fruit loop. Nut bar. It was taped to the back of the chair in front of her:
She looked at the letter. She looked at her plane ticket. Why not? What could be worse than Tasmania?
* * *
He bought her a garnet wedding band. A tiny round stone. Bulbous. Crimson. She didn’t wear a veil. He stood slightly behind her when they said their vows. Vowing to love, honour and cherish her neck. She thought about having a baby.
* * *
She cooed when he stroked her neck. Lying quietly on her stomach while her daddy, perched on the edge of a chair, sketched her for hours. “Perfect, perfect,” Simon muttered to himself. Her baby with the perfect neck. Simon called her Lily.
Darkness with long, cold fingers woke her. An empty bed. Unslept in. Unwrinkled. She thought about the box under the bed. Filled with notes, papers, books, life. Her unfinished Masters. Her letter from Tasmania. Confetti from her wedding. Simon’s mug was gone from the bedside table. His red slippers conspicuously absent. She could have worn her hair down tonight. A butterfly clip munched on her scalp. She loosened its claws and climbed out of bed.
Her bedroom door was ajar. Pink carpet. Pink walls. Pink Strawberry Shortcake quilt cover. Lilies. Six lilies in a crystal vase. Always six. From Simon. Her cot was empty, but the wooden bars were still in place. She pushed open the door and turned on the light as Simon traced a long, flat petal down her neck and along her spine. Lily took out her dummy and kissed him on the mouth. Repeatedly. Huddled in the damp corner. Sharing a secret.
* * *
The pills were half pink and half white. Like gingham. She pulled them apart like she had seen so many times in the movies. The Bad Seed. She poured the powder into her red cordial and stirred it with her finger. She searched under the bed for the blue photo album. It was sandwiched between the brown box and the wedding album. She flicked to the second page, tracing the photo through the plastic. The first photograph he had taken of her neck. She pulled back the plastic sheet, tearing the fragile photo from its sticky bed. Lily drank the cordial. She tucked her into her bed for the last time and then started the car. It was a long drive. The sea was a murky turquoise. Her last thought was of Simon’s manicured nails tracing the velvet nape of Lily’s cold, stiff neck.