The electrician Woznak, a big spare man with sandy hair and pale blue eyes, lived on a bush block a few miles down the road from us toward Cooma, but used to eat every night in town in the back bar of the Commercial Hotel where they had a good fire going in winter.
One night we asked after his wife, who we hadn't seen for a while. He told us she'd gone.
– It gets cold down here, as you know, and you need a bit of warmth at night, he said. – At first we were warm enough for each other if you know what I mean, but after the first year or so she liked having the dogs on the bed with us.
– I wasn't so keen, not because I don't like dogs but because they take up space on the bed. Now that bed we had isn't very big in the first place, but the fact is those dogs kept pulling the covers off. I mean they always slept over on her side and so they kind of anchored the blankets there and if I turned over the blankets would stay where the dogs were lying on top of them, and every time the dogs moved they took a little bit more blanket with them and gradually through the night I'd find no blankets at all on my edge of the bed.
– Well I didn't like the cold air on my back whistling up me flute and making me shiver. She always said it wasn't them doing it but even when I showed her how it had to be them she still wouldn't get rid of them.
– Plus, they farted like nobody's business. If I ever farted she'd make a song and dance about it, get up, open the windows – even in a frost – fan the air with a newspaper, all the rest, but when they stank the place out and I complained she said, 'They can't help it, they're only doggies.'
– She loved those dogs.
– Well I kept on and in the end she got fed up, took the dogs and left. Moved down to Mongarlowe somewhere. Left the cat behind though. The cat was alright. Even slept on the bed with me sometimes. But with one thing and another I forgot to feed him and he wandered off, too.
– So I was on my own, the whole bed to myself, and you know the strangest thing? I still woke up every morning with the blankets half on the floor, my arse hanging out in the cold. Took me a while to work it out. I was kicking and pulling the blankets off myself. D'you see?
He looked at us with his troubled blue eyes.
– Why would I do that? he said. Pull my own blankets off the bed?
We could not answer his question. Two years later we heard about a woman who had been living on her own in Mongarlowe found dead, strangled in her sheets. Her dogs, who had been shut in the house with her, were found still alive, curled up next to her body, as if, said the local policeman, trying to keep her warm.
There is only one decent sized room in town and that's the one at the club. There's only one club, come to that, which is not so surprising in a small community like ours. The Golf Club, and the Returned Soldiers Club, and the Football Leagues Club are all in the one building, and in the big room of this building are held the various yoga classes, martial arts lessons, local business seminars, and all the other comings-together with which our town entertains itself and for which it needs a decent sized room. Such as the dance concert.
For three or four years Antonia had been giving dance lessons on Tuesday evenings in the big room at the club, and at the end of each year, more to please the students than to advertise herself, she organised a performance. The room, on these occasions, was always full. As well as the nervous and excited dancers there were the mothers and brothers and sisters and aunties and grandmas, and lurking at the back of the hall there were even a few men; fathers, husbands and the odd boyfriend enjoying a discreet beer.
This year's concert began, as usual, with the little kids. They wandered around more or less in formation, usually managing to clap together in time, but often just following the one next to them. The applause was warm and genuine, led by the mothers who loved seeing their children perform, almost as much as they liked comparing the costumes they had made with the costumes made by neighbours and relatives. After the 'littlies' came the bigger girls, then bigger again. There were a few boys in the younger classes but as the students grew older the boys tended to drop out. Antonia stood close to the action, just to one side of the performance area, counting time, calling cues, sometimes giving the example of the movement the performers should be doing. She seemed completely unselfconscious, moving with a precise grace through the routines, in full view of the audience, though not 'performing', as such, herself.
The year-twelve student presentation pleased her. To music of Stravinsky she had choreographed a fairly demanding piece and the girls pulled it off fairly well, she thought. She walked among them, smiling, giving their sweaty bodies a brief hug.
The final piece was an exhibition of belly dancing and for this item she was to perform with the students. There were six belly dancers, counting herself. Three of them were older women who had come in from town, or in one case had driven some thirty kilometres, to join the two adventurous younger girls (one of them Antonia's own daughter,) in exploring the moves of the Turkish 'harem.' It was fun, it was daring, for these older women, none of them slim, none of them particularly outgoing or exhibitionistic, to join the girls in this exotic dancing. Throughout the year the classes had been full of laughter.
Antonia had studied belly dancing with a Lebanese woman in Melbourne many years previously, but had kept her interest alive with film and videos. She loved the music and spent many hours at her home late at night listening to the sounds of the Middle East, making up cassettes for her class from the many CDs and tapes she had collected.
She picked up a shiny gauze ribbon and tied it loosely around her waist. All the dancers had these bright lengths of flimsy over their leotards, a small concession to the origins of the dance. The music began: a loud sinuous 'rouk' from Algeria. She angled her hips and with a nod to her fellow dancers began the first routine. She could feel a thickening of the atmosphere; a sharpening of attention from the men at the back of the room, and not much less so from the mothers and the young girls at the front. The smile never left her face, although she avoided the eyes of the audience, as she had avoided those eyes all through the evening.
She found herself at one point out on her own, in front of the rest of her troupe, one foot outstretched, one hip pushed forward, her arms upraised, her fingers held 'just so', one pointed, the others forming a circlet; a gesture of poise and grace, of readiness, of preparedness - for what, she wondered? What is it all for?
'Most people who move out of the city to a little town like this one are running away from some sort of trouble or other.'
The speaker, Brian Stoneham, was sitting at the table with his arms folded; a man of some forty years, an administrator at the university in Canberra. There was a confidence in the way he delivered his opinions, even though he was the newcomer at this party, as he was to this district.
'I don't except myself, of course,' he said. He reached out and selected a slice of carrot cake from the table, which he popped, whole, into his mouth. He kept on talking while he chewed.
'Jeannie and I were in a lot of trouble.'
All eyes turned to Jeannie who swallowed and glanced around with a tight smile on her lips. She might have been about to say something but Brian continued.
'Back in Sydney, we were both married to someone else. When we got together all hell broke loose.'
We all looked at the smooth brow of the speaker and wondered what kind of hell could have broken over this head and left it so unscathed.
'We had to leave town,' he said. 'Literally.'
Jeannie made some sort of demurring noise but her husband carried on.
'These small towns are the resting places for fugitives like us,' he said. 'Divorcees, tax offenders, struck-off solicitors and defrocked priests; bankrupts, drunks and drug abusers, as well as the more ordinary offenders; the social incompetents, the inept, the early retirees. Anyone who can't quite keep up with the modern world ends up in a place like this.' He looked around as if waiting for someone to challenge him. 'The trouble is,' he went on, 'it makes for a kind of unreality. In all things.' And after wiping his hands on his jumper, he folded them again.
Pamela leaned over to take a sandwich. 'Some of us think that life is more real here than it is in the city,' she said. 'Believe it or not, that's why some of us actually moved here.'
She was a mild looking woman dressed in quiet colours. Her hair, her cardigan, skirt and shoes were all a shade of light brown. Nothing about her seemed designed to give offence, or even to be noticed, but there was a steely line to her jaw. She kept her teeth closed when she talked.
Brian shook his head like a bishop hearing a blasphemy.
'Unreality pervades all of life,' he repeated.
'What do you mean by 'unreality'?' said Pamela, allowing a certain irritation to show.
'Well, look at that performance we witnessed this afternoon,' said Brian. 'The kids were just normal hopeless kids, but the Belly Dancing! I mean, really, what did that have to do with belly dancing? If you've ever seen real belly dancing you know there's something going on that makes it what it is. Something to do with sex, excitement, transgression, danger. Real belly dancing is about women presenting themselves in the world of men without shame as sexual creatures, with all the power that such a flaunting entails. The women who do this dance; in the bazaars, in the clubs, the nightspots, the brothels; they are saying to the men there, saying with their bellies, with their dancing, that they are available, that they are there for your pleasure, you men. This is it, here, this belly!'
He stood up and shook his hips for a few seconds then slapped himself a couple of times below the belt. There was some giggling, and his wife said, 'Oh, Brian.' He promptly sat down again.
'To transform this flagrant offering of the self, into some kind of safe and cosy, look-don't-touch, feminist self-discovery exercise - utterly sexless, utterly without reference to or culmination in sex; in other words, to clean it up and use it as a cross-cultural fitness routine seems to me nothing less than a travesty: an un-reality.'
'Is that what it was?' asked Pamela. 'You don't think those women were laying something on the line? Because I do. And I think a lot of the men who were there were thinking that too.'
'It took a bit of guts to get up and do that,' said Phillip, Pamela's husband. 'I was impressed.'
'Yes,' said Brian, 'you were impressed by the guts it took. We all were. We could see the determination on the faces of those dancers. It took determination to get through this public trial. But that's not really the point of a belly dance is it? Did you feel anything else? Any stirring of the juices?'
'Um,' said Phillip and looked nervously at his wife. 'Um, no.'
'Hmm.' Brian looked at Phillip with a sudden interest. 'Perhaps I'm missing something.'
'No. No.' Phillip was stammering slightly. 'I'll agree that it wasn't an erotic experience.'
'You know,' said Brian, 'there was only one of those dancers who showed the slightest idea of what it's all about. Co-incidentally she was the youngest. Do you know the one I mean? She had blonde hair, wore a brown leotard. There was something about the utter self-absorption with which she held herself, something wonderfully graceful about her movement, something incredibly innocent in the way she performed those undeniably sexual gestures. I couldn't take my eyes off her!'
'So it did work for you in a pederastic kind of way,' said Pamela through her teeth, her thin lips grimacing.
'No. Not like that.' Brian was protesting. 'She didn't make me feel like possessing her. I was just aware of her beauty in a way that, I guess, if I saw her walking down the street I probably would not be.'
'At least there's something 'real' that happened.'
'Perhaps so, then.'
'Anyway,' said Pamela, 'that's Jo, Antonia's daughter. She is a wonderful dancer.'
'She's a lovely girl,' said someone else, and everyone around the table agreed that Jo was, indeed, a lovely girl.
A few days after this Brian was in the supermarket when he caught a glimpse of the dancing teacher at the end of one of the aisles. He wheeled his trolley towards her, passing the cereals and the biscuits without stopping to choose what he wanted for his breakfast or his afternoon tea. His heart was beating and his mouth was dry. He told himself that he hadn't yet congratulated Antonia on her concert, and that, despite the reservations he had expressed at the party, now would be an appropriate time to do so. He had seen Antonia doing her shopping here on one or two prior occasions and she had usually been accompanied by one or other of her two children. Brian could not now be sure if Antonia was alone or not. He swung around the end of the aisle and into the next one, but only in time to see the woman turning, with what seemed to him a folorn gait, towards the cash register. Brian scooted his trolley down the aisle. Why was he hurrying? He reached the open end of the supermarket and looked up expectantly. Antonia was walking out the door, a plastic bag in her hand. Her small son was walking solemnly next to her. There was no sign of the daughter.
Brian turned back towards the dairy section and resumed his shopping, browsing in the unhurried way everyone else did, in a manner that he had already become accustomed to moving around these shelves. A few minutes later he found himself in the vegetable section standing next to Pamela.
'Hello,' he said cheerily. 'I just saw your friend Antonia. I was going to tell her how much I enjoyed the concert, but she left.'
'Why would you tell her that,' asked Pamela, 'when you told every one else how much you hated it?'
Brian's head jerked upwards in surprise. 'I didn't say I hated it,' he said. 'I was saying that I had some problems with the inauthentic experience of second-hand ritual. Surely I made that clear?'
'No, not really,' said Pamela, putting brown unwashed potatoes into a large paper bag.
'Well I didn't explain myself properly,' said Brian. 'The thing is, I could almost swear that she was avoiding me just now. She nearly ran out the door before I could get to her. Now why should she do that?'
'I don't know,' said Pamela. 'Perhaps some unkind soul told her about your critique. It's very hard to keep your opinions private in a small town, you know.'
'Oh, God,' said Brian. 'I've put my foot in it.' He pulled a new plastic bag from its roll on a shelf next to the potatoes and began trying to open it. 'I must say, though, that she looked pretty mournful. Surely the critical opinion hasn't been all bad?'
'I don't think she gives a stuff about critical opinion right now,' said Pamela. 'I don't think that she's really concerned about dance class or concerts just at the moment.'
Something about the firmness of her jaw, the heaviness of her manner of speaking made Brian pause in his efforts with the plastic bag.
'What's the matter?' he asked.
'I might as well tell you,' said Pamela, and looked him in the eye for the first time. 'Do you known Matt, Antonia's partner? No? Well, they've been together a few years. He's not the father of her children. Anyway, he's gone. The day after the concert he left and he says he's not coming back.'
Brian looked thoughtful, blinking at the serious woman. 'She must be devastated.'
'You said it.' Pamela took a breath. 'Matt ran off with Jo. Her daughter.'
'What? That little girl?'
'She's sixteen. She's his step-daughter. They were close.'
His eyebrows went up. 'Evidently. Where did they go?'
Brian was silent. He looked at the onions and at the potatoes but he couldn't quite look at Pamela's face.
'So,' she said and smiled at him through her teeth. 'Is that real enough for you? Is that the authentic experience you were hoping for?'
'I could see she was a good dancer.'
'Very observant of you.'
'Oh dear,' he said, sympathetically. 'That poor woman.'
Without another word, Pamela took her groceries to the cash register.
A week later Antonia left town.