Imperfect Goddesses: Short Story
Ms Murphy values perfection above all things – at least when it comes to the things she can control. When it comes to the things she can’t control, she finds it prudent not to acknowledge their existence. Unfortunately no-one had informed the universe, which is why the goddesses and gods, and perhaps even God themself, had something entirely different in mind for Ms Murphy. Something far from perfect.
At precisely 10am every Saturday, Ms Murphy studies the Letters to the Editor. She finds comfort in the routine, tutting over the typos and grammatical errors. Prior to that she reads the obituaries even though she never recognises any of the names, which is exactly how she likes it.
Determined to keep the world at arm’s length, Ms Murphy’s weatherboard cottage sits at the end of a cul-de-sac, protected by an overgrown, yet carefully maintained fortress of fuchsia bougainvillaeas, gnarly-branched banksias and several varieties of lilly pillies. The only real sign that someone might live there is a mailbox with a “No Junk Mail” sign. “Absolutely no exceptions” has been handwritten in flawless calligraphy under the first line. These measures ensure everything is as it should be in Ms Murphy’s world.
On this particular day, she looks up from the paper to take a sip from her fine china teacup – a flash of blue in the backyard catches her eye.
Ultramarine blue fragments dance across Ms Murphy’s pristine lawn. Ultramarine – the colour prized most by renaissance artists. The colour of her most prized possession…Her silk scarf!
The teacup falls from her hands. Royal Doulton shards swim in a puddle of inky tea. Her heart races faster than her seventy-something-year-old legs and sensible shoes can carry her. Shaking hands struggle to unlatch the sliding door.
Outside, an unseasonal northwesterly wind bites cold. A scrap of ultramarine fabric skips past her. Smaller confetti-like pieces gambol around her feet. Her eyes go to the clothesline, where she’d hung out the scarf earlier that morning, but only one ragged ribbon remains.
At the foot of the Hills Hoist is the tail-wagging, border collie/cattle dog/something-or-other. The dog has a black mask-shaped patch on its face, giving it the appearance of a raccoon. A remnant of Ms Murphy’s scarf hangs from its mouth.
Tears prick her eyes. Then comes the tidal wave of anger.
Ms Murphy recognises the dog from the rental property three doors down. She’d seen the ragamuffin of a girl who lives there, sitting on the lawn one afternoon, sharing a squeezy yoghurt with the dog, while regaling it with some kind of story that required great waving of hands.
She ties rope to the dog’s collar and marches the animal down the street.
At the tiny fibro rental, she notes the weeds and ankle-length lawn. She presses the doorbell, but there’s no answer. She taps her foot and presses again – still no response.
‘It doesn’t work,’ someone – a girl – bellows.
Ms Murphy turns but can’t locate the owner of the voice.
Ms Murphy looks up. The ragamuffin girl sits in a mango tree, peering at her from large nut-brown eyes that dominate her urchin face.
The dog barks a greeting.
The girl scowls. ‘What are you doing with Batdog?’
‘He has a mask like Batman.’ The girl puts a hand on her hip. ‘He’s a superhero.’
Ms Murphy’s hands clench by her side. ‘Where’s your mother, young lady?’
‘What is she doing in bed at this hour?’
The girl, who looks no older than eight, scrambles down the tree and yanks the rope-lead from Ms Murphy’s hand.
‘None of your business,’ the girl says.
‘Tully!’ A bleary-eyed woman wearing a crumpled uniform appears in the doorway. ‘Don’t speak like that.’
The woman and the girl, Tully, share the same cartoon-big eyes and manes of curly hair.
The woman gives Ms Murphy an exhausted but friendly smile. ‘Were you waiting long? The doorbell doesn’t work…I worked all of yesterday at the hospital…I’m a cleaner there…then the night shift at the roadhouse…Got to make ends meet…’
Ms Murphy purses her lips at the woman’s rambling.
‘…Sorry, I’m Bianca, you’re Miss Murphy aren’t you?’
A muscle in Ms Murphy’s cheek twitches. She hates people knowing her business.
‘Ms Murphy,’ she corrects. Professor Murphy, actually, but that would lead to further conversation.
Tully cocks her head. ‘Mzzz?’
Don’t be rude, Bianca mouths at her daughter, then turns to Ms Murphy. ‘How can I help you?’
Behind her mother’s back, Tully pokes out her tongue.
Ms Murphy squares her shoulders, ready to begin her lecture, but there’s something in the mother’s tired smile that stops her.
‘I wanted to return your dog,’ she grumbles instead.
Ms Murphy grunts an acknowledgement and leaves.
‘We’ll see you around, Ms Murphy,’ Bianca shouts.
I certainly hope not, Ms Murphy thinks.
Back at her house, Ms Murphy collects the scarf pieces and places them in the bin. She doesn’t unpeg the last piece from the line. It would make it too final.
A week later, Ms Murphy is kneeling on her front lawn, digging up clumps of clover by hand when she hears yelling.
‘It’s all your fault,’ a girl screams.
‘I don’t have time for this, Tully.’ Bianca’s raised but exhausted voice.
‘You’re the worst mum in the world!’
Ms Murphy heaves herself to her feet and hurries back inside her house.
Not even ten minutes pass before she hears a knock at the door.
‘Ms Murphy, are you there?’ Bianca calls.
She stays hidden behind the closed front door.
‘Ms Murphy?’ A strangled cry.
Ms Murphy takes a deep breath and opens the door, immediately regretting it as Tully stomps straight past her into the house.
Relief floods Bianca’s face. ‘I’m so glad you’re home. Tully was supposed to have the day with her father…but he didn’t turn up…again.’
Ms Murphy casts a nervous look over her shoulder, as a chorus of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahs’ ring from room to room.
‘I have to work at the hospital,’ Bianca continues, ‘but my usual babysitter is on holidays…’ She finally stops to take a breath. ‘I’ve got no-one else to ask…Can Tully stay with you for the day?’
‘Stay?’ Ms Murphy squeaks.
A desperate look.
Ms Murphy thinks she must be losing her mind, but she wants to help Bianca.
‘Well, she’s here now…’ she says gruffly.
Ms Murphy is pulled into a hug, limp arms pinned to her side.
‘Thank you so much.’ Bianca’s voice wobbles.
Ms Murphy finds the girl in the dining room staring at a well-stocked bookshelf.
‘You have so many books Mzzz Murphy. Are you rich?’
‘No I am not. And that is a very rude thing to ask.’
Tully tilts her head. ‘How do you learn things if you don’t ask questions?’
‘Well…’ The girl made an excellent point.
‘You must find lots of answers in your books.’
‘Well…yes.’ Ms Murphy’s books are devoted to art and mythology. The subjects she had studied and taught at university.
Tully grabs a book from the shelf. The pages fall open to a picture of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. It is the painting that first ignited Ms Murphy’s passion for art and mythology. A smile tugs at the corner of her mouth but quickly vanishes.
Tully giggles. ‘That lady doesn’t have any clothes on.’
‘That lady is the goddess, Venus.’
Tully scrunches up her nose. ‘I thought Venus was a planet.’
Ms Murphy sighs; the girl talks as much as her mother.
Tully jabs a finger at a crystal crucifix on the wall.
‘My grandmother had one of those. Do you believe in God?’
Does she? Ms Murphy was raised in a good Catholic family and as a child loved many things about church, particularly the beautiful statues and stained glass that gave everything an ethereal glow. But there was also the fire and brimstone sermons…and other things…In any case, a lifetime of indoctrination is hard to shake.
‘Yes…I believe in God,’ she says slowly.
‘So if Venus was a goddess, was she God’s wife?’
Ms Murphy’s head spins. She looks at her watch. It’s only 9.55am.
‘Morning tea,’ she declares.
Ms Murphy prepares tea under a barrage of questions. She swirls boiled water around the pot, ‘to warm it’. She puts three spoonfuls of Bushells in the teapot, ‘one spoon for each person and one for the pot’. She pours the tea and puts a – ‘it looks like a jumper’ – tea cosy on the pot.
Tully’s already large eyes grow when she spies a plate of butterfly cakes. She goes to grab one.
Ms Murphy tsks. ‘First the tea. How do you take it?’
Tully rests her elbows on the table, her chin in her hands. ‘How do rich people take it?’
Ms Murphy grits her teeth and pours Tully a milky cup of tea. She offers the girl cake.
Tully shoves it into her mouth. ‘This is sooo delicious.’ Crumbs sputter everywhere.
‘Don’t speak with your mouth full.’
Tully gulps down the cake. ‘Mum doesn’t bake cakes…She doesn’t bake anything.’
‘I don’t suppose she has much time for baking.’ Ms Murphy opens her newspaper and turns to the obituaries.
‘That’s probably one of the reasons Dad left.’
Ms Murphy pretends she can’t hear and starts to read.
‘It’s her fault Dad doesn’t visit. If she was nicer to him, he would have come today like he promised.’
Something catches in Ms Murphy’s throat but she continues to read.
When she finally looks up from the paper, Tully isn’t there, but a grinning Batdog is.
‘Tully?’ Ms Murphy searches the house, coming to a stop outside the second bedroom. The door is ajar. The light is on. Ms Murphy’s heart stills. She pushes the door open and creeps forward.
‘This is amazing!’ Tully waves her hands at the paintings on the wall and floor. They are modern reinterpretations of well-known Renaissance paintings.
Ms Murphy’s eyes, though, are on the bed. Neatly made as if waiting for someone.
‘You shouldn’t be in there.’ A raspy whisper.
‘But who did all these? This looks like the one in the book.’ Tully points to a half-finished replica of The Birth of Venus. The painting is nearly complete except for Venus’s face.
A hard lump forms in Ms Murphy’s throat. She hadn’t been able to get the face right. It was supposed to be a gift for Rose. It needed to be perfect.
‘Did you do these?’ Tully coos. ‘They are sooo beautiful.’
‘Please, come out.’ Ms Murphy’s voice shakes.
‘Whose room is this?’
Something breaks inside Ms Murphy. ‘It’s Rose’s room.’ Control leaves her voice. ‘But she’s dead. Are you happy now?’
A barking Batdog barrels toward them.
Tully’s bottom lip quivers and she runs from the room. Batdog tilts his head, as if deciding who needs more comforting. He ultimately follows Tully.
Ms Murphy takes a deep breath and secures the bedroom door. She finds Tully on the lounge, hugging the dog’s head to her chest.
‘I’m sorry I got angry.’ Ms Murphy sits down beside her. ‘My privacy, though, is important to me. Do you understand?’
Tully nods. ‘Who was Rose?’
‘My…My best friend.’
‘I had a best friend once…Her name was Alice but when I couldn’t go to her birthday party she got mad and said we couldn’t be friends anymore.’
‘I see.’ Ms Murphy did in fact see.
‘That’s Mum’s fault too.’
‘She said I couldn’t go to Alice’s party because we couldn’t afford a birthday present.’
Sweat springs from Ms Murphy’s palms. She is reminded of when the nuns gave her the cane for not attending mass. Ms Murphy and her family attended mass religiously – except when they had no money for the plate.
She meets the girl’s eyes. ‘Tully, you have a very good mum.’
‘Alice’s mum is a good mum. She makes Alice’s favourite lunches, even sushi…I don’t like sushi…blergh…but if I did…Alice’s mum bought her sparkly sandals from a real shop. Alice’s mum is perfect.’
Ms Murphy thinks about her own mother who’d been ostracised after a sixteen-year-old Ms Murphy attended a life drawing class. The mother who sat proudly next to her daughter at church – even though her daughter wore boy-short hair and trousers. Her mother was an angel, but not even she was perfect.
‘No mother is perfect, and it’s wrong to expect perfection from anyone or anything.’ Was she talking to herself or Tully?
‘I just wish…’ The girl’s eyes brim with tears.
‘Let me tell you about a mum.’
Ms Murphy tells Tully about Juno, the goddess of marriage and childbirth. How Juno’s husband was unkind to her, but she took control of her destiny, overcoming great hardships, and even though she made mistakes, she was a great leader and mother.
She shows the girl a picture in one of her art books depicting part of Rubens’ Juno and Argus. The picture focuses only on the striking goddess and the woman beside her decorating the plumage of the peacock. Ms Murphy points out how Juno was often portrayed as a vengeful and wrathful Queen, ‘but in this painting she is shown as regal and compassionate.’
The girl sniffs back her tears.
‘Can you teach me more about the goddesses?’
Ms Murphy’s heart lurches at the girl’s earnest face.
‘Yes. I’ll teach you about the goddesses.’
‘Hey, Mum.’ Tully throws her arms around Bianca.
‘Hi?’ Bianca accepts the embrace with a puzzled smile.
‘Bye Mz––’ A thoughtful pause. ‘Mzzz Murphy…what’s your real name…you know, your first name?’
Ms Murphy was born on Blessed Diana’s feast day. It was a good Catholic name.
‘Diana? Wasn’t she a goddess?’
Bianca raises a questioning brow.
‘Yes. Diana was the goddess of the hunt. Someone who followed her own goals and dreams.’
Tully nods knowingly. ‘That’s why you were named after her.’
A shadow of a smile plays on Ms Murphy’s face.
Ms Murphy – Diana – doesn’t correct her. ‘Goodbye, Tully.’
Batdog nuzzles her hand before following Tully out.
The next thing Diana says is unplanned, but perhaps inevitable. ‘Bianca, next time you get stuck…’
The following night, Bianca, Tully and Batdog appear on Diana’s doorstep, a sleeping bag tucked under Tully’s arm.
‘They called me in for the night shift.’ An apologetic smile.
‘Of course,’ Diana says gravely, trying not to let on how glad she is to see the girl.
Tully’s goodbye to her mother is punctuated with hiccuping sobs.
Had a bad day, Bianca mouths to Diana.
Once inside, Diana asks Tully what happened.
The girl bursts into tears. ‘The mean boys at the park said I’m a loser because my mum buys all my clothes at the op. shop.’
Diana’s hands form into fists…She takes a deep breath. ‘Do you know what I do when I feel sad?’
‘I look up,’ Diana says. ‘Up to where the goddesses live…’
Diana takes Tully outside and shows her the night sky. She points out Venus, then the Milky Way. She tells a story about how Juno had been breastfeeding Hercules, ‘but the baby suckled too hard, and she pushed him away. Her milk sprayed across the heavens forming the Milky Way.’
Tully erupts into giggles. ‘That would make a good painting,’ Tully says.
‘It has been the subject of many paintings.’ The thought becomes words before she has time to interrogate it. ‘Would you like to learn to paint?’
‘Would I ever!’ the girl squeals and Batdog barks along with her.
That night, Diana airs out Rose’s room. She makes the bed with clean sheets and she tucks Tully and Batdog into Rose’s old bed.
The weeks that follow are all chaos, unpredictability and imperfection. There are painting lessons, mythological stories, walks on the beach, cups of tea and endless questions. There is a plan for an art show.
The day of the show arrives. Two paintings are on easels draped with velvet.
Tully wrings her hands. ‘I’m too nervous to do it.’
Diana unveils Tully’s artwork, a recreation of Rubens’ Juno and Argus, but there is no Argus. Just a woman in a uniform, holding the hand of a girl – they share the same wild, curly hair. They decorate the feathers of a peacock.
‘She’s a goddess,’ Tully explains.
Bianca’s eyes swim with tears.
Tully’s face crumples. ‘Don’t you like it?’
Bianca rubs her eyes. ‘I love it.’ Tully exhales loudly. ‘But I didn’t know peacocks had pink and purple feathers.’
Tully tsks. ‘This is modern renny-a-sense, Mum.’
‘…Of course…It’s beautiful.’
‘Diana has a painting too.’
It’s Diana’s turn to be nervous.
Tully lifts the velvet to reveal a reimagined and finished, The Birth of Venus. Diana has included herself as the goddess of the seasons, welcoming Venus to the shore. And Venus’s face is complete.
Bianca and Tully stare at Venus. ‘She’s beautiful.’
‘She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever known,’ Diana says matter-of-factly.
‘Who is she?’
Diana looks up from the painting to the backyard. On the line the last fragment of her ultramarine scarf flutters in the southeasterly breeze. The scarf bought for her by…
‘…Rose,’ Diana says.
‘She was Diana’s best friend,’ Tully explains.
‘She was also my wife,’ Diana adds. A sudden lightness fills her chest. It is the first time she has used the word “wife” in that way with anyone other than Rose.
A gust of wind tugs the scarf fragment from the line and carries it away.
Mother and daughter’s hands find Diana’s. Batdog nuzzles Diana’s leg. They all smile at Venus.
‘I want to say it’s perfect but…’ Tully glances at Diana, ‘…is that okay?’
A big breath. A release. ‘It’s perfectly okay.’