A FRIENDSHIP MOST UNLIKELY

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Beatrice quietly opens the door to the veranda and steps outside.  The garden is in shadow, it’s palette of lavender, charcoal and pale grey made even more mysterious by a lingering wraith-like mist.  Although insubstantial, the mist is persuasive enough to obscure the boundaries of the garden and deny the existence of neighbouring houses. Beatrice cherishes the quietude and stillness that is peculiar to pre-dawn, before birdsong becomes a shrill cacophony and the mournful caw of crows reverberates through the tree tops with monotonous regularity. It’s a time for solitude and contemplation.

Leaning against the veranda railing Beatrice looks out at the garden. A chill breeze penetrates the thin fabric of her cardigan, she lifts a cup of lapsang souchong to her lips and takes comfort from the tea’s warm smoky flavour. The breeze moves on causing the jasmine to release its heady perfume and for the mist to lift and billow, forming new ephemeral shapes only to finally settle once again into grey stillness.

Suddenly a flicker of movement at the bottom of the garden, near the grotto. Beatrice focuses intently, was it just the shifting mist or something more sinister. Ever since the death of her husband Edmund two years ago, Beatrice finds she falls victim to what she describes as the ‘heebie-jeebies’. When in the grip of these agitations, the innocuous sounds of a possum scampering along the verandah or the dog barking next door take on a far more threatening reality. In Beatrice’s mind, instead of the harmless sounds of a nocturnal marsupial, it becomes the determined break-in of an intruder and the barking dog is giving desperate warning of approaching danger.

Beatrice of course admonishes herself for these morbid flights of fancy. “I need to get a grip,” she thinks. Throwing the remains of the now tepid tea into the garden she moves back into the house. The cup and saucer are rinsed and left to dry near the sink. Two weet-bix sit in a bowl, softening in warm milk. Beatrice likes the weet-bix to take on a porridge like consistency before eating them. Taking the bowl and a spoon, she moves to the kitchen window and from there while eating her breakfast, Beatrice enjoys a clear view of the garden and more importantly the grotto.

Beatrice discovered the grotto after she and Edmund had bought the house more than forty years ago. Back then a rampant Banksia rose had almost engulfed the entire back garden. It had climbed the trunks of trees and spread out into their branches. Beautiful and unrepentant, the rose reluctantly acquiesced to Beatrice’s determined secateurs and slowly the trees and surrounding shrubs were freed of its clinging vine until all that remained was a tangle of gnarled stems imprisoning a rather curious structure at the very bottom of the garden.

At first, Beatrice thought it may have been the original outdoor lavatory but they were usually made of timber and this structure was fashioned from stone and cement. After a morning of exhausting labour the structure was finally free of the constraining Banksia rose. It’s a Grotto thought Beatrice excitedly as she cleared the opening of decaying leaf matter. Her excitement turned to wonder because in the grotto’s dark dank interior she could see the faint glow of marble.  With growing excitement and infinite care, using the fabric of her skirt she begins to wipe the marble clear of grime and mould. What is revealed to Beatrice both surprises and delights her. “I’ve found a Grotto of Our Lady “.

With breakfast finished and the rising sun burning off the last remnants of vapour, Beatrice decides it’s safe to investigate the environs of the grotto. She wants to reassure herself there’s nothing amiss and that the movement she had seen earlier was indeed only the shifting mist and nothing to be alarmed about.  Taking secateurs with her – the climbing rose needed constant trimming – Beatrice sets off across the damp lawn.

All those years ago, when she had first discovered the Madonna in the grotto, Edmund demanded that Beatrice make arrangements for it’s immediate removal. His Presbyterian sensibilities discomforted by an item so obviously Roman Catholic, he wanted no truck with it. But Beatrice, ignoring his sulks and acrimonious argument, had remained firm and the statue stayed where she had found it.

Just why she was so intractable against the removal of the statue, Beatrice couldn’t explain. Perhaps it was simply the Madonna appealed to her sense of aesthetics. She found the pale oval face, the long tapering fingers and the graceful fall of her dress movingly beautiful. Truth be told, Beatrice felt when she gazed upon the statue, a calmness wash over her and the vicissitudes and aggravations of day to day living slowly dissipate, leaving her feeling refreshed and able to face with renewed vigour the tedious minutiae of her uneventful life.

As she approaches the grotto, Beatrice is conscious of the suns warmth. ”A promise of a hot spring day” she thinks. While removing spent blossoms from the climbing plant covering the grotto Beatrice is suddenly possessed by a feeling of disquiet. Something isn’t right. The ground in front of the grotto is churned to a muddy mess and the small garden bench opposite has been upended.

”Oh no! Please! Please! Let it be alright,” pleads Beatrice as she hurriedly kneels at the grotto’s opening. Peering into its shadowed interior her worst fears are realized. The statue of the Madonna is gone! In it’s place a single blood red rose.

. ”Why would anyone want to steal the statue? It’s been there, undisturbed for decades. Who to ask for help? Not the local constabulary. Too embarrassing having them traipse though the property, covering everything in dark sticky powder looking for finger prints not to mention the endless speculation from curious neighbours. No, best to leave them out of it. Hebe would know what do but unfortunately she’s abroad “.

Beatrice sets the garden seat to rights and slumps dejectedly upon it, She gazes unseeing at the now empty grotto, her mind a maelstrom of despairing thoughts. A sharp sudden pain to her finger interrupts her gloomy deliberations.  Looking down Beatrice is surprised to see she is holding a rose, the one left presumably by the thief. She had unwittingly picked it up and the pain to her finger had been delivered by it’s thorny stem.

It’s then Beatrice notices a slip of white paper wrapped like a sleave around the upper most part of the stem. Could it possibly be a note or is it just a device to protect oneself from the thorns. With mounting excitement and unsteady fingers, she carefully unfolds the paper and to her amazement she sees several lines of writing. Holding it to the light Beatrice reads, “Do not despair. The Madonna shall return to her grotto”.

Beatrice reads the note again ,  hoping to gain a better understanding of its cryptic contents but to no avail; it remains a perplexing and vaguely sinister mystery. Folding the note and slipping it into her cardigan pocket, she is suddenly anxious to leave the scene of the crime. A disturbing feeling she is being watched causes her to cast an urgent glance at the surrounding greenery. Perhaps it’s her fractured nerves but the verdant shadows seem to hide a lurking menace. Beatrice, not willing to linger any longer, hurries towards the welcoming protection of the verandah.

Behind the thick tangle of jasmine creeper and murraya shrubs stands a tall figure, loosed limbed and strong. The attractive face is dominated by large green eyes so heavily mascaraed the whites appear almost translucent . They follow the retreating form of Beatrice as she ascends the verandah steps and disappears inside.the house. Dolores hesitates then also turns to leave, she has seen enough it is now time  to  implement her plan.

PART 2

Beatrice couldn’t sleep. When she was about to surrender to Morpheus’ comforting embrace and find merciful oblivion, out from the crowding shadows old fears would suddenly swoop, propelling her to a complete and anxious wakefulness.

Turning on the bedside light, Beatrice takes up her book; perhaps the splendid career of Nancy Mitford’s ‘Madame de Pompadour” would quiet her clamorous thoughts. But after a few moments, she concedes defeat. Not even the glamorous Jeanne-Antoinette could deflect the determined agitations from bubbling to the forefront of her consciousness: ”Who had taken the Madonna and why?”

Beatrice turns out the light and sinks back into the plumped pillows. Perhaps she should ask Dolores had she seen anything unusual. After all, her small cottage was closest to the grotto and easily seen from the kitchen window. Then again, perhaps not. There was something about Dolores that Beatrice found unnerving.

Athough they had been neighbours for a decade they were not friends. In fact they were barely nodding acquaintances having only ever once-while waiting for service at the local green grocers-struck up a rather fraught and discombobulating conversation about the merits of the Hass avocado over the Shepard variety.

Beatrice, if she was to be honest found her neighbor more than a little intimidating with her exaggerated make-up and theatrical attire. A not so unusual affectation from someone who’s job was an entertainer, she supposed. But the thing that disconcerted her most, was Dolores’ deep raspy voice. Was it a consequence from working many years in the smokey environment of nightclubs?

Dolores, in spite of her bravura was beset with uncharacteristic insecurity, her postiton as the star performer in one of the Valley’s larger gay night-clubs was coming to an end. The management had recently cut back her shows to one evening a week and the time slot for her performance made so late in the night, most of the patrons were either insensible with drink or as high as kites on drugs.

The real problem was, she was getting older and her loyal fan base had long moved on. Retired to the suburbs or disappeared into the coastal hinterland to grow organic vegetables and play at being gentlemen farmers or the like. The young gays that now jostled each other for a better position to view Dolores’ act were an altogether different entity: opinionated, assertive and showing little respect for her talent or her as a person.

Dolores belonged to another era and while she maintained her professionalism, it grew increasingly difficult to remain impervious to the insults and at times open hostility that came from the more rowdier element of the club’s habitué. They didn’t so much come to see her show but were there to solely demoralize and humiliate.

It took courage to face a hostile audience night after night but Dolores was fashioned from a life of hard knocks. She was tough, funny and her razor-like wit saw many of her tormentors turned to a pillar of salt by her withering one-liners. The young gays saw it as great sport. Dolores saw it as the end.

In the glamorous but tawdry world of nightclubs, relationships tended to be transient and more often than not, fraught with professional jealousy. Long lasting, nurturing friendships did occur but by and large entertainers were gypsies, anxious to move on, hungry for a new audience, a different venue and a novel experience. Dolores knew she had made a fatal mistake. She had stayed too long at the party.

It was time to moth-ball her sequinned costumes, put away the false eye-lashes and theatrical make-up, let her long black hair go slowly grey and assume a more sedate lifestyle. She had her nest egg and owned outright her small cottage in  New Farm. As long as she was careful and avoided unnecessary extravagances, she would go along nicely. But would it be enough?

The overwhelming concern for Dolores was she didn’t have any friends who belonged to this cosy, respectable new life she envisioned for herself. A life where you spent time enjoying the small things, like dead-heading the geraniums, reading the papers on Sunday morning and sharing a therapeutic belly laugh with a neighbour over the back fence.

Dolores felt certain that Beatrice could be that friend, if only she could figure a way around the formidable barrier caused by Beatrice’s shyness. It was difficult to fashion a friendship with someone when they pretended myopia and hurried in the opposite direction an ugly stain flooding their normally pretty complexion as a telling sign of subterfuge. Dolores was nothing if not resourceful, she was most assuredly confident she would find a way.

One morning, while contemplating a solution for her stalled friendship with her neighbour, Dolores, from her kitchen window, observes Beatrice tending the Banksia rose that grew in pretty profusion around the grotto. Dolores knew within the grotto stood the marble statue of the Madonna and that Beatrice came daily to sit quietly in its presence.

As she watched Beatrice take her usual seat in front of the grotto, Dolores felt suddenly breathless, indeed almost feint. She had experienced an unexpected epiphany, an almost spiritual flash that revealed the way to overcoming the barrier that stood between her and Beatrice. It was daring and could perhaps backfire horribly, but she was prepared to take the risk. She couldn’t believe the answer had been in front of her eyes all the time. It lay with the statue in the grotto.

PART 3

It’s just before dawn and a ghostly mist makes its way down river, stealthily spreading its wraith-like fingers into gullies and creeks until the low lying land mass that is the peninsular of New Farm is covered in a clammy vapor.

Dolores stands hidden behind the hedge of murraya shrubs and the tangle of rampant jasmine creeper that separates her property from that of her neighbour, Beatrice. She waits patiently for the swirling cloud to infiltrate the surrounding gardens knowing it will afford her further protection from possible prying eyes. Within minutes the fog has obligingly provided Dolores with the cover she desires. She is now ready to make her move.

Advancing with surprising grace and agility for a woman her size and age, Dolores climbs the low fence and quickly makes her way towards the Grotto. Crouching behind it’s concealing bulk, she peers warily through the pewter grey gloom toward the dark shadow that is Beatrice’s house. All quiet there, the house is still in darkness but she must hurry for a sharp breeze has begun to shift the mist and it won’t be long before the sun’s rays will burn off the remaining vapour.

Inside the grotto, Dolores can see the spectral outline of the Madonna, carefully easing the statue from its base, she tenses her leg muscles then awkwardly hoists the marble sculpture to her shoulder. The statue’s unexpected weight causes Dolores to stumble slightly, knocking over a small wooden bench as she endeavours to right herself.

As she makes her way unsteadily back to the enshrouding shadows of the murraya hedge, Dolores casts an anxious glance towards Beatrice’s house. Alarmingly, she sees the kitchen light is ablaze and Beatrice stands on the veranda, silhouetted against the light’s yellow glow. Dolores freezes, hardly daring to breath she waits for a challenging cry to cut through the stillness of early dawn, demanding she give an account of her actions. But no challenge is forthcoming and Beatrice moves quietly back into the house seemingly unaware of the nefarious activity taking place in the dark shadows of her garden.

Once she is safely back in her cottage, with curtains drawn, Dolores places the Madonna on the dining room table. The table is covered by sheets of newspaper. She critically appraises the stolen Madonna ‘”A pretty, but insipid thing,” she thinks, “Not at all to my taste”. Then tying a scarf over her hair and donning an overall, Dolores takes a large sheet of sandpaper and in smooth circular strokes begins working the marbled surface of the sculpture.

Several hours later, Dolores is forced to leave the house, the awful pervasive smell of an oil based primer making it impossible for her to stay inside. She takes refuge from the noxious fumes by walking in her small garden. The primer will take at least two hours to dry and then she will be ready to execute the next stage of her plan.

The morning has advanced and the mist has long since evaporated. Coming to rest in the shade of the murraya hedge, Dolores’ attention is caught by a flicker of movement . Through the lush foliage of the hedge she can see Beatrice examining the now empty grotto and her anguish at finding the sculpture gone is patently evident. Momentarily, Dolores’ confidence deserts her. Has she made a monumental mistake?

A week has passed since the statue mysteriously disappeared from its grotto and Beatrice sits in lavender shadow on her veranda. The sun is gone and twilight is darkening to a stygian gloom. Never had she felt the lack of friends so sorely and with each passing day the desire to confide in someone grows more urgent. But who? The local constabulary were the most obvious choice but Beatrice’s innate distrust of any form of officialdom has put paid to that being an option.

Beatrice abandons the veranda and heads to the kitchen, it’s time for dinner. She puts two lamb cutlets on the grill and while they are cooking, assembles a small garden salad. That done she pours herself a glass of shiraz, all the while cogitating about what it is she should do.

With dinner eaten and the dishes done, Beatrice prepares for bed. The endless and exhausting rumination along with a second glass of wine has caused her to feel bone achingly weary. And as she begins to drift towards unconsciousness, a thought comes unbidden: ”I know what to do. I’ll tell Dolores”. At last a solution and the relief of a decision made eases her into merciful oblivion.

Beatrice is awake before dawn. Something has woken her. Perhaps the dog barking next door. She lies quietly listening to the first beginnings of birdsong hoping to drift back into sleep but unfortunately the dog, with renewed vigor, begins barking again. No chance of sleep now, Beatrice kicks free of the bed covers and makes her way to the kitchen.

Outside it still dark but the sky in the east is tinged with pink, daylight is not far away. Beatrice turns the kettle on and while she waits for the water to come to the boil she moves out to the veranda. The garden is redolent with the smell of jasmine and the flowering murraya’s.

Beatrice’s attention is suddenly drawn to the grotto. She can see an eerie glow coming from its interior. It’s appears to be some kind of conflagration. The desire to investigate proving stronger than the need for caution compels Beatrice to move decisively across the lawn toward the grotto. Within moments she is at it’s opening and standing in a circle of dancing candle light is the slender form of an old friend.

The statue of the Madonna was back! But instead of the serenely pale, achromatic sculpture that Beatrice had known for decades, there in its stead was a exotic and vivid beauty, dressed in cobalt blue robes with gilded under-skirt and sandals. Someone had spent hours, painstakingly painting the statue from top to bottom, bringing the marbled Madonna startlingly to life. The hair was coloured a dark honey blonde and sitting atop the statue’s head was a beautiful gold filigree crown.

Beatrice is astonished at its almost magical beauty. Who had done this and why had they done it? Her eyes were drawn repeatedly to the statue’s oval face with its warm caramel complexion and the soft rose coloured mouth. But it was the eyes framed by delicately arched brows that Beatrice found the most fascinating, their shape and definition reminded her of someone.

Perhaps it was the flickering candle light playing across the statue’s face, momentarily giving it a worldly expression or maybe it was just good old fashioned intuition but Beatrice suddenly realizes who the sculpture reminds her of. Dolores! Dolores draws her eyebrows in the exact same shape and if you were to outline the Madonna’s eyes more heavily they would be a replicate of those belonging to Dolores.

The morning has advanced. Beatrice sits quietly on the bench opposite the grotto. The candles have burned low, spluttering in melted wax; and the sun is beginning to gild the tree tops. A discreet cough and Beatrice turns to see Dolores standing hesitantly near the murraya hedge. Making room on the bench Beatrice gestures for Dolores to join her.

The two women sit in companionable silence both looking at the resplendent Madonna. ”Do you like it?” Dolores finally asks. Beatrice smiles and says, “Oh yes, so much. I’m reminded of the Virgin Mary in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Chignahaupan near Mexico City. It’s where Edmund and I spent our honeymoon.”

Dolores feels almost light headed with relief at the utterance of these few words. The gamble has payed off. Beatrice warmly takes hold of Dolores’ paint splattered hand and squeezes it. ”Would you like to come up to the house for a cup of tea? It’s the least I can do to thank you for all the trouble you went too.” Dolores blinks back tears. She is certain that Beatrice and her are on the brink of a burgeoning friendship, something she has wanted for such a long time.

And as the women walk arm in arm towards the house, Dolores, cocooned in the warm glow of friendship, says in confiding accents, “I have a confession”. Beatrice, looks her companion in the eye and says nothing. Dolores gamely continues, “My name isn’t really Dolores. It’s Barry, I was born a boy.”

Beatrice smiles warmly, “I always suspected as much. You don’t live in New Farm for nearly forty years and remain ignorant to alternate lifestyles”.

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