EXCERPT ALERT: Ainslie Paton’s ‘Hooked On A Feeling’

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Hooked On A Feeling
Ainslie Paton

There’s a sexual revolution going on, but not in Gayle’s life. She’s never felt so old, so unattractive, and so helpless. Your husband asking for a divorce could do that to you. Now she’s the scandalous new neighbour, the single mum, the divorcee, who needs a job but doesn’t know how to balance her own cheque book.

And then Steve and Ray arrive in her life, the former with chocolate hair and hurt eyes, the latter with a tomboy daughter and an uptight attitude. Suddenly, being separated doesn’t feel so shameful. This is the story of how Gayle lost her home to find true friends; her marriage to find a new life; and her husband to find love.

Escape Publishing

 

 

— Excerpt — 

Hazel could hear Steve banging around in the lounge room setting up the stereo. She unpacked sheets and stacked them neatly on the top shelf of linen press, which was already lined with the pages of a Women’s Weekly from last year. There was an interview with Gina Lollobridgia. She stood on her toes and turned the page around to read the headline. Men are wonderful but husbands—too complicated.

She smiled. Gina was smart. But then she’d never met Steve. Because forget husbands—men were too complicated. One great hulking spunk of a man in particular.

In the lounge room Steve swore. There was a word Hazel didn’t catch then he ground the word ‘mother’ out like it tasted bad. He finished with the word ‘cock’ and it stabbed at her like anticipation. She kicked off her shoes and leaned around the doorway. There he was on his back, his head and arms under Gayle’s stereo unit. The top button of his jeans was undone and he muttered to himself while he tried to do whatever it was he was doing.

All the little muscles that held her centre together tightened up involuntarily as she looked at him. She wet her lips. He was the perfect synergy of mass and strength, height and weight, softness and rigidity. The way his skin sucked against his rib cage, the ridges of his abdomen shifting slightly as he moved his arms where different muscles bunched. The sprinkling of hair over his chest was wiry looking and now she knew it felt wiry too. He had one leg bent, foot flat on the floor, the skin of his knee visible through the slash in his jeans. The other leg was splayed out across the olive green carpet. She had to put her hands in her pockets to stop herself going to tickle that dirty foot. He deserved it. He wouldn’t see it coming and she’d be able to get away quick. It was entirely fair, it was only a tickle and damn she wanted to touch him even if it was only the callus under his toes. Goddamn, she wanted to lie down beside him, run her hands all over him and lick his stomach, run her tongue over the jutting edge of his ribcage into the hollow of his belly and down the trail of softer hair to the waistband of his jeans.

She shook her head and turned away. Better not to get caught out looking at him. There was probably drool on her chin. She touched her lips to be sure and went back to the cupboard.

Once she’d seen Steve come in to number 15 she should’ve stayed away. But she was weak-willed and after what happened in the kitchen—cloth-kneed.

He was the light and she was a moth, and she could no sooner stay in the house when she could be near him than she could repay her father what he’d loaned her for her London airfare and rent support. And yet she owed it to herself to stay away from him. Because he was the dark and she was forever falling and he wrecked her. He’d been wrecking her ever since he moved into Middle Street. And still she wanted him. He was the reason she came home on the weekends. He was the reason she eventually rejected every guy she dated. He was the reason she was still hauling around her virginity like a sack of useless old potatoes and pretending she was hip, free and groovy.

He was the reason for London and unless something changed, he was the reason for Hong Kong as well. Far out, he was almost the reason for everything she’d done since she was wearing a school uniform and struggling with scientific maths and Shakespeare. She hated herself for how pathetic she was. But she didn’t stay away.

She was such an idiot to mention Vietnam. As if he wanted to be reminded. No wonder he looked like thunder for a while there. But he snapped out of it pretty quick so he must’ve forgiven her. What would Gayle think though? She seemed nice. A little uncertain, a little formal, but then she and Steve had blown in and taken over so that might make you unsure. That kid outside with Kim must be her son. She was so young to have a kid around Kim’s age. She must’ve been a baby when she married. Shame she had to manage the move by herself, her husband must work on Saturdays like Ray sometimes did.

Steve was still thumping about in the other room. Hazel started on the next shelf. She’d put bath towels there on top of a competition notice. It read: First Love. Tell us in no more than four hundred words about your first love. Perhaps it happened two years ago, maybe it’s twenty, maybe more. We’ll pay $100 for the best entry.

Maybe she should’ve entered. Four hundred words on why she loved Steve. But four hundred words wouldn’t be enough. You’d need that many to describe his looks. How the plumped up muscles moved across his chest, how his thick hair curled at the back of his neck. That dangerous look he got. The tick under his left eye if he was stressed out. How his beard outlined his strong jaw and his tan highlighted his downright spunkiness.

She could start by describing what he looked like four years ago when he moved into the street with Ray. His hair was shaved close then, he had nicks and cuts all over his scalp, no beard or mo, and he was gaunt, his cheeks hollowed out, his eyes never still, never steady. His hands shook. And sometimes he looked at you as though he had no idea who you were. Loud noises irritated him and one time when a helicopter went overhead he ducked as though he thought it was going to land on him.

That Steve, back from a second tour in Vietnam and angry, limping still from a wounded knee, had scared her silly. He’d been out in the jungle killing Vietcong while she was learning to drive and experimenting with makeup. That was out of this world. Of course he hadn’t been interested in her. He barely knew she existed. And when he finally acknowledged her he called her Helen for the longest time and she’d been too scared to correct him, because after so long ignoring her at least he was calling her something.

And God, he’d been wild. He still was. He drank and he smoked and he juggled multiple girlfriends. And he grew his hair out and he started surfing and looking after Kim for Ray. He got headaches and he never wore shorts, only jeans and long boardies to the beach. She’d never seen it, but she imagined the scar he had from the shrapnel wound. He hardly ever wore a shirt in summer, or shoes. He bought a panel van and he smashed it up twice. He started working for Ray on building sites and he got in fights. And every so often he’d disappear and Ray would say he’d gone walkabout and he never knew when he was coming back.

When he’d first arrived she sometimes woke at night to hear him shouting. Her bedroom was on the same side of the house as his. Dad said he had shell shock, he was trouble and Hazel and Greg were to stay away from him. But it was Hazel who was shell-shocked. Irretrievably over Steve. Greg thought he was a dickhead.

Is that what the Women’s Weekly wanted? Did they want to know she’d fallen in love with that Steve? The one who’d yelled at her once for creeping up on him. The one who knew her as the neighbour’s oldest kid—an awkward Catholic schoolgirl.

And now that he was better, more stable, she loved him even more deeply.

No, four hundred words wouldn’t be enough to explain how looking at him made her insides melt, made her heart trippy and her head spacey. And it wouldn’t be near enough words to describe how often he broke her heart without knowing it. Oh, he remembered her name now. Haze. Sometimes Hazey. Or Baby. Or Sweetheart. And he knew how to tease her like an older brother might, but he didn’t know what she felt for him, and there hadn’t been a right time to tell him. Would never be. Because she knew she was too young and shallow, and he was too deep and has seen the worst of life. What did she possibly have to offer a man who’d seen blood and gore, primitive and ancient? She was still an awkward Catholic schoolgirl, just with groovier clothing.

That competition should’ve given extra points if your first love was unrequited. Ironic she’d need a word that sounded like it belonged to Shakespeare to describe her love for Steve. Because even if it wasn’t impossible, it was unreasonable. It was unreciprocated, unreturned. It was a one-way street. A dead end.

Steve loved Bonnie, then Liz, then Karen. Cathy, then Fiona and Sandy. He dated June who wore pearls earrings and Saffron who wore cheesecloth and went braless. He dated any and every woman who so much as blinked at him, single, married, divorced, confused. He dated them. And he changed them as regularly as he washed his Sandman—about every six weeks.

He made out with them in that olive green panel van parked outside Ray’s where Hazel could see the van rock in the streetlight from her window. He took the chicks away on weekends, to see bands and out dancing to clubs. He felt them up on the footpath. He kissed them stupid leaning on the fence. That once he’d caught her looking when she’d gotten out of Nick’s car as he was mid-maul on some moll, he’d grinned at her and put his hand straight under the moll’s shirt and over her boob. Far out. Hazel felt embarrassed remembering it.

The only woman he was constant for was Kim. And even then, there were the times he’d get drunk or high and forget about her. Leave her waiting after school for him or sitting outside the house for hours on her own. There was that one time he was supposed to take her to a birthday party and he’d been so drunk he slept through the whole day. Kim had walked to the party all by herself and the birthday girl’s parents had flipped out when no one came to collect her.

Hazel heard the crackle of a needle sitting on a record. Then the piano beat of Bennie and the Jets. Gayle looked like an Elton John fan. Steve was a Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, Stones man, Skyhooks at a pinch. He’d rather leave a room than listen to Sherbert or Hush.

She knelt to stack the bottom shelf. Why had he touched her like that today? She could still feel his hands on her ribs, on her hips, under her arms. Why, when she hadn’t spoken to him in weeks and he hadn’t touched her since he scraped her cheek with a kiss at the last barbie? Was he still with Cheryl? Not that being with anyone would stop him. But he’d touched her so hard, so long, so much like he wanted her. It was just tickling and he was still mad with her, she could see it in his eyes, but he’d never touched her like that before, and Gayle was watching, and there’d been nothing she could do to get away from him. There was a weird fluttering, squirming feeling low down in her gut. He was such a spunk. And she was such an idiot for thinking it meant anything, but for just that moment she’d been so happy she’d wanted to die.

“Want a fag?”

She flinched. He was behind her, leaning on a stack of boxes, a cigarette dangling out of his mouth. She wanted to be where that filter tip was. She was on her knees, and when she turned to face him she was virtually at his feet. He had high arches and long toes. He’d lost the nail on the second toe of his right foot and it never grew back again.

“Did you ask if you could smoke in here?”

He rolled his eyes, as well he should, she’d sounded like the teacher she was about to be. As if she could teach him anything.

“It’s cool, Haze.”

It wasn’t cool. It was rude. Steve was rude and crude and God, she wanted to bury her face in his knees and beg him to touch her again. She put a stack of linen tea towels on the shelf. Gayle might prefer them in the kitchen but this would do for now.

“Hong Kong. You’re serious about that.”

Hazel closed her eyes. She seriously needed to stop fantasising about Steve. She seriously needed to get on with her life. “I can tutor English, the money is good. I can travel and then come back and settle down into a regular job.”

She heard the sound of him blowing out a stream of smoke. “You want to settle down, huh?”

She turned back to face him. He’d just ashed on top of a box. He blew out another stream of smoke. “I want to get a good job. I want to pay Dad back. Get something better to drive than the old bomb. I want a lot of things.” And one particular mad, bad, dangerous thing who was never going to want her back.

“I’ve got a mate up there. Nelson Wong. I’ll get you his details.

She stood. “Ta. That would be great.” He’d probably forget he’d offered and then she’d make a fool of herself asking.

“You look good, baby.”

“Oh.” She looked shocked. She looked like she was catching flies. She could see her face on a mirror propped on a hall table behind Steve. She closed her mouth. He didn’t mean it. He did stuff like that deliberately to get a rise out of her. “As if you care.”

She only had two ways of speaking with him: practice teacher and sullen teenager. She pushed another box aside with her foot and headed for the kitchen. He blew smoke at her as she passed and the record reset to the first track, Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.

“I care, Haze.”

She spun back to look at him. He grinned like a fiend and laughed.

 

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