My grandmother had a hunchback. My mother made me do yoga as a kid. She would watch as I stretched into the cobra position on the kitchen tiles and wouldn’t let me watch TV until she was satisfied with the curve of my back and the length of my neck. Now, even when I don’t want to, I stand straight and stare ahead. When I walk the dogs, when I pass people I went to school with. When I’m tired. I feel my mother’s palms pressed flat across my shoulder blades and I rise like a snake.
Today, the dogs are restless. We walk through Raby Bay and they twitch in all directions, trying to struggle out of their collars. Milly and Robot are new this week, a Fox Terrier and a Maltese. They bicker between themselves and become agitated whenever their flanks knock one another’s. Robot wears a blue collar that has a silk bow tie attached. Fergus, the Dalmatian, pauses to smell a pole and paws at the ground in a way that our old Bull Arab, Timmy, might have. I try to find Timmy in the slant of the Dalmatian’s nose, the flop of his ears, but I can’t. I drop the dogs home—Milly to Mrs Yan, Robot to Beck, Fergus to Mr Sailsbury—and sit on a bench and wipe the dog hair from my hands onto my shorts. I bite into my sandwich and listen to the cars.
When I pick up Peanut and George from a large house near the lighthouse, Mrs Marshall is solemn at the door.
‘They need to lose weight.’
I look at the Cocker Spaniels. Their chests puff and their cheeks swallow black, watery eyes. I realise Mrs Marshall is waiting for a response.
‘The vet, she said so.’
‘She’s probably right.’
I look across the water at the yachts. A couple are drinking on a boat ramp. The woman laughs and some champagne spills from her glass and onto her skirt. The man lifts the skirt to his lips and sucks it off. I look back to Mrs Marshall. She nods and shuts the door.
I walk Peanut and George for an hour, and when I drop them off, they lie in Mrs Marshall’s koi pond and won’t look at me so I walk to the bus stop in Cleveland.
I cut across Middle Street and go into the scrub. When I get to the creek bank, I see a little kid, his arms lanky and freckly. He has slipped under the rail and is lying on the bank, his hand slowly moving through the water. When I pass him, he lifts his head and I smile at him, but he looks away. I get on the 250 and get off at the Alex Hills shops and walk the rest of the way home.
My mother is making fritters and I try to dip my finger into the batter but she knocks my hand away.
My younger sister is sitting very close to the TV, using the light to stare at her reflection and pluck her eyebrows.
‘Bubs,’ I say.
When she looks at me her eyes are red. She blinks a few times, squeezes her eyes shut and blinks again before she smiles. My mother calls that dinner is ready.
I walk down the hall and into my room. I get undressed and sit on the bed. I turn on the ceiling fan and watch it spin shadows across the floor. I get up and open the wardrobe, staring into the floor-length mirror on the back of the door. I take off my bra and undies and kick them out of view. I try tying up my hair. Then I leave it down, swept over my shoulders. I run my hand over the velvety folds of my belly, and then over the curve of my hip. I grab onto my hipbone as if my hand belonged to someone else. I speak to myself in a rough, sexy voice and then blush and laugh.
When I go into the lounge room, my mother and sister are eating the fritters and watching the broadcast of the royal wedding. Prince William waves kindly to the screaming crowd, their hands straining and reaching as if to touch him. Kate smiles. She looks beautiful.
This morning I made myself an instant coffee but forgot to drink it. It was cold and I poured it down the sink. I think about this as Beck talks. When I listen again she is retying the hair tie at the end of her plait and is still talking about Christos.
‘He’s really very lovely, and needs someone fast. His dog is getting depressed being by herself all the time. Do you think you could take him on? Will you?’
I take Robot’s lead from her. ‘I can go today.’
‘Oh, would you? You’re amazing. I’ll message you the address, it’s just down the road.’ She’s claps her hands together so quickly and lightly that I’m not sure her palms touch. Robot tugs me down the driveway, and I smile at Beck over my shoulder.
The house that Beck sends me to is the nicest house on Sentinel Court. Large and cream, with palm trees and Mondo grass on the front lawn with a sandstone fence. I press the buzzer on the gate and squat down under the shade because I feel like I’m getting sunburnt. Robot follows me to sniff around the hedge. The gate opens and a lady asks me to come in.
‘I’m Nora,’ she says. ‘The housekeeper.’
‘I’m the dog walker.’
‘Beck said you’d be coming.’
She tells me to leave Robot in the front yard. Inside the house is dark and cool, and Nora says that the dog is sleeping, to wait here. She goes upstairs and I look at the photos of Bali on the wall. There’s one of an old building, and I start to look closer, but Nora walks downstairs and behind her is the Basset Hound and I step away.
‘This is her,’ she says. She shows me where the leads are and gives me the security code for the gate, a key for the house. Nora is short, and I have to lower my neck to look into her face. ‘I’m gone by one, usually, so you’ll have to bring her back inside alone. Alright? This is her water bowl.’
I nod and clip the lead onto the Basset Hound. Her body is long and thick, and I run my hand over her back. She licks my knees. At the gate, Nora says goodbye. I’m halfway down the street before I realise I don’t know the dog’s name, but when I go back to the house Nora is already gone.
The Basset Hound likes Robot. She rolls on her back and he runs his nose over her belly, his tail wagging. We walk down to the bay, toward the restaurants, and play in the grass next to the marina. The dogs yap happily and I chase them, playing tag. I collapse under a tree and throw a tennis ball until they get tired and lie next to me, panting, their breath hot on my face. We walk back lazily and I choose the way with no shade so I can feel the sun on my shoulders even though I’ll probably get sunburnt. At the Basset Hound’s house, I enter the security code, but then I struggle with the key. Robot sits and waits in the front yard, lapping water out of a bowl. Inside, I take off the Basset Hound’s collar and lead and she walks to her water. I stare after her a moment before I walk into the kitchen.
The kitchen is clean. The bench is a polished speckled stone, and all of the appliances are stainless steel. I open the cupboard and pull out a packet of bran cereal. I untie the plastic band around the packet and eat the cereal with my fingers. The only other things in the cupboard are tins of chicken stock, cannellini beans, and a container of fish oil tablets sitting alone on the top shelf. On the fridge there is a magnet of the Great Ocean Road. The Basset Hound nudges my leg, and I feel her wet chin against my ankle. I stroke her head, the soft fur between her eyes, and we walk out of the kitchen and into the study.
The study is dark, even when I turn on the lamp in the corner. On the wooden desk there are five letters in their envelopes, all addressed to Christos. One of them looks interesting, and is already open, but it’s only a phone bill. I slip it back into the envelope and coo at the Basset Hound as I turn off the light.
Christos’s bedroom is tidy and smells of aftershave. He has too many pillows on his bed, and I have an urge to store some in the linen cupboard. There’s a ring on his nightstand, and I pick it up and turn it over between my fingers. It doesn’t look like a wedding ring, more like a family heirloom. I slip the ring onto my pointer finger, but it’s too loose and slips off so I put it onto my thumb. The Basset Hound whines from the doorway and wants me to follow her.
We sit on the leather couch and watch TV in the lounge room. The carpet is so soft I almost lie on the floor. The Basset Hound sits with her head in my lap and I pet her round hips and her stumpy legs. I think about what Christos looks like and where he works. I think about whether he has a girlfriend that comes over from time to time, and if she sits on the couch with his Basset Hound like I do. We watch two programs on the Food Network before Robot barks loudly outside. After a few minutes, I get up and turn off the TV. I put Christos’s ring back onto his nightstand, and then the Basset Hound follows me to the door. I stroke the pale, fine hair inside her ears and look into her eyes before I leave.
The next time I walk the Basset Hound, I have Robot and a German Shepherd named Betty. Robot’s little pink tongue sticks out of the corner of his mouth, and he barks whenever another person walks past. Close to Christos’s house, Robot finds a bush and sniffs around it before Betty lurches him forward. His blue bow tie gets caught on a branch and unravels, and I pick it up and thread it through my ponytail.
I punch the security code into Christos’s gate and walk inside the yard, pulling the dogs behind me. The sprinklers are on and the dogs run through them. I walk quickly through the water and realise that there’s a man standing at the front door.
‘Hello,’ he says, ‘you must be the dog walker.’
Christos is tall with blue eyes. There’s a light peppering of grey hair near his ears. He offers me his hand, and I take it before I remember that my hands are dirty. I shake his hand quickly then put mine in my pocket.
‘Yes,’ I say.
The Basset Hound looks up shyly from behind his legs. I want to kneel and call her to me, reach out my palms, but I stand still.
‘Here’s the lead, I already put her collar on,’ he says. I take the lead and reach down to touch the Basset Hound. Christos looks at my chest and then looks away. I realise that the sprinklers have made my shirt see-through.
‘I’ll only be about an hour,’ I say. He smiles and says something. I don’t hear it but I nod and smile anyway.
I take three wrong turns on our walk. This confuses the dogs and they huff, unsettled. The small park we walk through is nearly empty, with only a mother and a toddler playing on the swings, but their noise, or maybe the heat, makes me dizzy and I have to sit under a tree, my forehead against the bark, the dogs getting twisted in their leads.
I arrive back to Christos’s house, and he opens the door after two knocks. He’s wearing a grey t-shirt and some boardshorts and his legs look tanned and strong, like he could run very far. He takes the Basset Hound from me and hands me a twenty.
‘Thank you,’ I say.
I start to leave, but then say, ‘What’s your dog’s name?’
‘Essie,’ he smiles, ‘Sorry, my housekeeper should have told you that.’
‘It’s a nice name,’ I say, and tuck my hair behind my ears. He smiles again. I’m almost at the gate before he calls out.
‘I like your blue ribbon.’
I frown. He gestures to the back of his head. I touch my ponytail, feel Robot’s silky bowtie. My ears flare up, hot and red, and I smile and say goodbye.
My mother and sister are tanning when I get home. I hear their voices, low, humming like cicadas, as I walk through the side gate and into the backyard. They’re wearing bikinis and lying on towels in the grass, their legs stretched out in front. My mother cups her hand above her eyes and peers at me.
‘How’s the dogs? You’re blocking the sun.’
I lie in the grass beside them. Every so often my mother sits up and smacks the ants off her feet. Bub turns onto her back and looks at me from behind her sunglasses. She’s wearing the old-season Seafolly bikini that we got at Harbour Town, the red one with purple flowers.
‘What’s wrong with you?’
I touch the black lining of her bikini strap, playing with the tag that’s sticking out. I think of how she works in a warehouse in Richlands, and when she comes home she throws up from heatstroke, and how it’s my job to lift her shirt and put wet tea towels on her back.
‘Nothing. My tampon hurts.’
‘You didn’t put it in far enough,’ my mother says.
Bub taps my arm, ‘Did you put your whole finger in?’
My mother says, ‘If she can still feel it, she’s done it wrong,’ then sighs and unties her bikini straps so she doesn’t get a tan line. The sun is hot and I put my arm over my face. When I wake, it’s early evening and my mother and sister are sunburnt. I order pad Thai for dinner and rub aloe vera lotion onto their arms and thighs, onto their bellies and necks.
I take Essie for a walk, and when we come back, Christos isn’t home and neither is Nora. Essie and I go inside and I switch on the air con, which I think she likes. Most days, when Christos isn’t home, I eat some cereal and then go to his bedroom and try on the ring. Sometimes I go through his closet, and sometimes I make a cordial and practise making a face in the mirror. The face says: I know you’re working hard mowing the lawn, and so I made you a cordial. I practise making my lips look plumper and lowering my eyes before slowly looking back up. This face says: I know you like your cordial watered down. I only put in one teaspoon of Cottee’s Orange Crush. This face says: When you stop mowing the lawn, will we go to the boat ramp and drink champagne? It says: When you suck the champagne off my skirt, look up, and you’ll know that I’m yours.
Some days I think that Christos’s house is an apartment, and that there is an apartment above us. I think I hear pipes and the sounds of people laughing as they chop vegetables. It’s only sometimes that I lie on his bed and think this. Mostly I just watch the Food Network. I sit on the couch with Essie and we watch at least three programs before I leave. My favourite programs are Kylie Kwong and Bobby Flay. Kylie because she seems like she wouldn’t take shit from anybody, and Bobby because he’s very charming.
I lie curled up on my bedroom floor. Bubs is making rissoles for dinner and I can smell the mince and onion cooking. I’m speaking on my mobile to Mrs Marshall. George has lost a kilo and she’s happy, but Peanut is still fat and that makes her upset. She tells me that though she likes George, Peanut is her favourite, and if anything were to happen to Peanut, she would be really upset. She says the vet told her that Peanut will probably die of diabetes. After a while I roll onto my stomach to rise into the cobra pose. I try to push up on my arms, but I get tired and stop. My mother’s laugh is loud and sharp from her room. She’s on the phone and I want to pick up the kitchen handset and hear what made her laugh. After Mrs Marshall hangs up, I lie on the floor until my breasts are swollen and sore, and my cheek is red from the carpet. Then I stand up and go to bed. I think I dream that night, but I guess I don’t really remember.
I go to Christos’s house and Essie is waiting for me at the front door. I look for Christos but he isn’t home. I clip on Essie’s collar and lead, rubbing her soft ear between my thumb and forefinger, and take her for a walk. We walk past the Courthouse restaurant, and all of the cream and the curly railings remind me of the royal wedding. I take my mobile out of my pocket and call my sister. Bub answers, and I can hear beeping and the sound of forklifts in the background. She laughs when I ask her if Pippa had a date at the wedding, and tells me that she doesn’t give a fuck about Pippa, she only cares if Prince Harry had a date. As she hangs up the phone, she breathes deeply, a crackling sound that is heavy in my ear.
When I bring Essie back, Christos is in the front yard. He has oil and he’s doing something with his boat. When he sees me, he waves and says to wait. I sit in the grass. He wipes his hands on an old rag and goes inside. I try to pat Essie under the chin, in the way she likes, but she licks my palms instead. Christos comes back out and hands me a can of Fanta. I thank him. My heart beats fast.
‘Did you know,’ he says, ‘that Essie does tricks?’
I shake my head. He holds out his hand and I see tiny pieces of shredded chicken. Essie jumps up and wags her tail. Christos lays his palm flat, and she sits. He throws her a bit of chicken, and she catches it easily. When he turns his palm over and lifts his fingers up, once, twice, Essie jumps up, her paws tucked to her chest. Eventually, she settles back, her thick thighs squishing against her warm belly and hips. She sits on her hind legs, risen like a snake.
Christos asks me to come inside. He takes me into his bedroom, and I notice that the ring is gone. When we have sex, I close my eyes, but then I worry that I seem childish so I just look over his shoulder, and then at the ceiling. He asks me to get down on my knees on the edge of the bed and he stands on the floor behind me. He is slow, and then fast.
I unlock our front door and walk down the hall. My mother is watching the telemovie about William and Kate called William & Kate: The Movie.
‘You know they met at uni? At the University of St Andrews?’ she says. My mother is crying.
‘Yes,’ I say.
‘They were in a class together.’
On the TV, William and Kate are in a bar. She’s wearing a maroon pullover and he’s wearing tan slacks. She’s dating one of his friends and he doesn’t like it. William walks up to Kate and says something funny, and she laughs.
I kiss my mother goodnight and then I walk into the bathroom. I turn on the shower and take off my clothes. When I take off my shirt, the fabric sticks to a part of my back. I turn my back to the mirror and look over my shoulder. The room is fogging up. Among the steam, I see a slick of something on my back. I pick up my shirt and wipe it off. I think about why I didn’t notice it on the bus ride home, and about whether Pippa or maybe even Kate has ever had this happen to them. Thinking about this makes me suddenly tired. When I finish wiping it off, I look into my shirt. It looks like the gelatinous skin of warm milk.
Alex Philp is a PhD candidate and sessional academic in creative writing at QUT. She writes fiction and short films. She was winner of the 2017 Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction, and her fiction has appeared in publications such as Overland, The Review of Australian Fiction, and Voiceworks.