“At a time when couples can pick and choose from a range of rituals to define their nuptials…about 53 percent of grooms hewed to tradition and asked the father first before popping the question, according to a 2005 Wedding Channel survey.”
– Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 13, 2007
I looked at the Post Gazette page on my screen and screwed up my face. Three per cent. God damn it. I took a long, sober breath, and grabbed for a scrap of paper. In a scribble less legible than usual, I took a pen that didn’t work and willed it across the back of an envelope. Barely thirty seconds later, I had the basis of my question for Neil. If only I could read it.
I headed for the toilet, and attempted to empty my bladder. Nothing to evacuate in the five minutes since I last went. I walked back to the kitchen, and then to the lounge, my head swimming slightly, and picked up the phone. I pressed some buttons, scrolled down the screen, to the entry called “folks”. I hit the speed dial.
“Hi, Helen, it’s Mark here.” I frowned. “Susan’s Mark.”
“Oh, Hi, Mark,” she replied, kindly, like I ring her every day, “How are you?”
“Really good, really good. Really relaxed.” I choked on some vomit.
“No, that’s great,” she replied.
I proceeded to tell her something about green shoes and my Meccano set that I got for Christmas when I was seven, before interrupting myself.
“Helen, is Neil around?”
“No, but I can give you his work number if you’d like?”
“That would be lovely,” I stumbled, “really, really lovely.” I slapped my hand over my mouth. I kept it there as I wrote down the number with the inkless pen, a silhouette of digits etched into a scrap of stationery. I said something non-sensical, mumbling through my fingers.
“Good luck with the Meccano,” she said, a smile in her voice.
I hung up and started dialling before I could think. The phone slipped in my hand as I held it to my ear, a dial-toned march to the gallows.
“Neil Brock,” came the cheerful reply. The nicest of all executioners. I placed my head on the block, my arms in the shackles. I began reading from my envelope as the guillotine rose.
“Look Neil, I really wanted to do this in person, but time and distance kind of precluded it.” The rope strained as its extreme. I looked out at the gathering crowd. “As you know, I love you very much, and I can’t imagine spending my life with anyone else.” A rotten tomato hit my face. I looked down at the floor, the envelope having slipped from my hand. “And I love your daughter as well,” I continued, “she is my soul mate on this earth, and I would like to ask her to marry me.” Some tomato dripped onto the envelope. A peasant cackled a toothless grin. “And so I’m ringing today to ask for your blessing.”
There was a pause.
“Oh, Mark,” Neil said finally, laughing loudly, “You’ve made my day. In fact, you’ve made my week.” He laughed again, a genuine laugh. The crowd cheered, and the guillotine fell, missing my head completely.
* * * * *
That afternoon, I sat in the jewellers, marvelling at this thing. How could cubic zirconia look this good?
“I’ve got to say, I’m pretty happy with the result,” the jeweller said.
“I’ve got to say the same,” I said, nodding slowly.
“For a mock up, I think it’s come up pretty well.” I picked up the ring, and placed it on my fourth finger, sliding it up to the knuckle. He looked down, frowning slightly.
“It’ll look better on her finger,” he said clearing his throat.
Two hours later, Suse walked through the front door.
“How are you, honey?” she asked as I hugged her tightly.
“Pretty good,” I said, as nonchalant as our dog. He mounted my leg.
“That’s great.” She paused, waiting. “I might just put my bag down,” she said, trying to breathe.
“Sure.” I let go.
“What’s going on?” she asked, her brow furrowing.
“Nothing.” I turned and walked back towards the kitchen. “Just a regular Tuesday.”
* * * * *
A number of people have stated – as fact – that it is a good thing that I can’t lie to Suse. But judging by the two and a half days of the proposition, I don’t know that I agree.
I arrived home from Queensland last Monday week. Last Thursday was D-day. I had to maintain that front for nearly seventy-two hours.
In that time, the following events were reported by me, as fact:
– My car battery died.
– I lost the camera.
– Actually, I lost both cameras.
– And I lost my bike helmet.
– I’ve had a really bad week for keeping personal belongings.
– Actually, it was the alternator.
– Actually, it doesn’t matter that I don’t know what an alternator is.
– Because the mobile mechanic doesn’t have one.
– At all.
– And the cleaner can’t come this week.
– Because I told the cleaner that four friends had become ill and were staying at my house.
– I accidentally told Suse the same thing.
– And I asked her sister to look after the dog on Friday, because I didn’t feel like it.
– I then corrected this, telling her I needed to drop off Claude because I would be looking after some friends who planned on becoming unwell.
And all the while – when Suse asked – I was very, very busy. Mainly busy checking my email. It can take days.
In that time, this is what I really did:
I’m fond of a project, and why not? When they come off, they can be really special. And I wanted special. So I took it on. As a project.
When I decided to hand-write every single SMS Suse and I have ever written to each other, I don’t think I really knew what this meant. I mean, I got it conceptually. I got its significance. I even got it intuitively. But I don’t think I got the cold hard facts of the time that this would take.
It all started with a notion. Suse is a beautiful poet, and our courtship has been a modern one, signposted by text. For months I had enjoyed this growing love letter, written through time, an electronic rally back and forth. For half a year I’d occasionally revisit a point in the story, relive a moment, take in a message, a special piece of prose. Hell, I’d even started a file.
A couple of months back, I took the messages from my phone and hers, and intertwined them. I typed them out, in order, by date. It ended as a conversation, a loving discourse in digital evolution. With a quick bit of editing – mainly the removal of messages about picking up the bread and milk – I had a love song. We were all a-Twitter, ahead of our time.
Then, a few weeks back, I had a brainwave. I figured that I would go and get some calculator rolls, some cash register ribbon, and write them out. End on end. Hers in pink, mine in blue. From start to finish, to celebrate our courtship. To ask with significance. Couldn’t take that long could it?
Five rolls, 183 metres of tape, end on end.
30,061 letters. All written by hand.
It took a little over twenty hours.
And here began the challenge.
* * * * *
I was doing pretty well. It was Wednesday afternoon. I was about three-quarters of the way through the job; it was Ribbon-writing Wednesday. I had a full day ahead of me to get things finished. Time to drop off Claude, pick up flowers and clean up the house. Time to find the vases, to organise a songlist, to get the champagne and to iron my shirt. Time to reconfirm on the restaurant, the driver, and the flowers. And most of all, time to figure out what the hell to do with the ribbon, where to lay it out, and how to get the scene ready.
And then the phone rang.
“Guess what, honey?” Suse announced. “I’m taking tomorrow morning off!” My spirit bounced as it hit the ground.
That night we sat eating dinner, in unusually awkward silence. I felt my feet go numb. Claude humped my leg.
“So what time do you think you’ll be going to work tomorrow?” I played it cool, like Daryl Somers on a banjo.
“I dunno,” Suse replied, “does it matter?”
I swallowed. Claude continued unabated.
“And you’ve got your Osteo appointment at five, yeah?”
“Yeah,” she said, her eyes thinning. “Why?”
“Just making conversation,” I said.
I cried myself to sleep.
I woke at six, my eyes flicking open like a possessed doll. I turned my head slowly to the right. Suse laid beside me, slow, soft breaths sucking the corner of the doona against her nose. I turned back slowly, took my phone from the bedside table, and turned it on. I started to take notes, to make plans. I began conniving. I’m no good at conniving.
By 6.45am, my list already had thirty jobs. I was agitated, unable to lie still any longer. I got up quietly and headed to the study. Here I planned my day. There was still an entire paper roll to complete – at least forty metres – but it was too dangerous to begin. She could appear at any moment. I plotted and planned; Hitler in my bunker. I could here the artillery fire getting closer.
“Hey honey,” Suse said at my shoulder. I screamed like a child. I fumbled at the keyboard, trying to quit my diary. “What are you doing?” she yawned, wiping sleep from her eyes.
I shook my head. Looking stupid. No point stating it.
“You’re acting weird today,” she said, turning to leave. She didn’t see me nodding.
For two hours I stayed there, planning, plotting, losing precious time. I forgot to shower. I sat there in boxer shorts. I had a plan, but by all reports my car was broken. God damned lies.
“I might go and do the groceries,” I announced as I headed through the kitchen. Suse looked up and frowned.
“After you get dressed.” I laughed weakly.
“What time are you leaving?”
“So I know when you need the car again,” I said, my voice cracking. I’d thought this one through. Just not the voice bit.
“About twelve, I guess.”
“Cool.” I headed out the door. I returned, put on some pants, and then exited again.
* * * * *
Several elderly shoppers lay strewn on the ground, assessing their injuries, having been hit by loose loaves and cartons of milk. The beep of the register droned on, like it was any old day.
“In a hurry are you love?” the coiffed poodle asked.
“You seem to be in a hurry.”
“Right,” I said, labouring for breath. I handed her my card, ready to scan it.
“Do you want that avocado?” Her voice droned in symphony with her scanner.
“Which one?” She pointed behind me, while playing with her coif. I looked back to see a child on the ground, half an avocado against his cheek. His mother wiped away tears.
“Probably not,” I said, and left without paying.
* * * * *
Ivanhoe Library is at 255 Upper Heidelberg Road. It sits on a large block, next to the Municipal Offices. It has two hour parking. I only had one.
In that time, I signed up as a life member – User name: ‘Why do I do this to myself?’, logged on to their archaic computer system, loaded my file, pulled out my pens and my calculator tape, and began writing. Libraries attract an odd sub-section of the community. They were all looking at me.
For fifty-four minutes, I wrote in a fury, cash register ribbon spewing out, spilling into the lap of the gent to my left, like some sixties incarnation of a super-computer. He was asleep, but seemed to enjoy the company. Occasionally he would wake, and offer comment. He was fonder of Suse’s messages than mine. He’s only human.
At 11.34am, I pulled into the drive before walking casually through the front door, covered in a film of sweat. Suse sat at her desk, not looking back, allowing me a window of time to unload my loot. I could have stayed at the library longer. I should have. There was still twenty metres to go.
* * * * *
The next ninety minutes were a paranoid schizophrenic’s wet dream. There I hid in my back room study, door ajar, listening for sounds of Suse stirring. The minutes lost were mounting, and with it, the risk I was forced to take. I pulled out the roll of paper and began to scrawl. A box sat at the edge of the desk, the loop collapsing into it like a lethargic gymnast’s floor routine.
I wrote and wrote, each time stopping on hearing Suse stir. With that, I would dump the roll and pens in the box, cover it with a thick cardboard bag, and minimise the SMS file on my computer. From her viewpoint, each time she headed for the study she heard me sweep some leaves, write an email, and then open a box of Cheezels in celebration. Several times per hour.
She would enter, and find me there, staring blankly at a screen. On one occasion I was staring at my log in page of my email.
“Are you going to sign in?” I looked hard at the keyboard, unable to meet her eyes. Unable to even speak.
“Yes.” Good one, Neanderthal.
“You are very secretive, Mark Nethercote, did you know that?”
“Yes.” Sweat dripped down my cheek.
* * * * *
By 1pm, I began to panic. In earnest. I stood at the toaster, chewing on stale bread, my stomach lurching.
“What time are you going to work?” I heard myself say to the wall.
“Dunno.” I felt my neck crick. Several lifetimes later came the answer, “Maybe three-thirty.”
I closed my eyes and swam. “Why do you keep asking?” I swam and swam, breaststroke, calmly through the dark water, towards the crocodile’s mouth. “Sounds like you’re trying to get rid of me.” I listened for the laugh. There wasn’t one. I placed my head in its jaw.
“No, honey, not at all.” The teeth closed tight. “I’m just going to grab the mail.”
As I walked to the letterbox, my three year-old left thong broke. I let out a breath, grabbed it, and then bit it. I snatched at the letters and pulled them out, throwing them onto the street as I took out my phone. I walked up the street. And I dialled.
“Manque design, Melanie speaking.”
“Hi Mel, it’s Mark, Susan’s Mark,” I spattered, “I’m going to propose to Suse tonight and…
“…Yep, congratulations,” I stammered, “but she won’t leave the fucking house. I’m trapped, Mel! I gotta set up, and she won’t leave! She just won’t leave! She told me midday and now it’s going to be three-thirty! Fuck, I’ve got so much to do, and…” I heard my own voice, “You’ve got to help me, Mel!”
“Yeah, right,” I continued, “I get that it might be funny, but, shit, fuck, Christ, Mel, you’ve got to set up a diversion – you’ve got to be my fall guy! Get a meeting moved forward, or, or…create a scene! Please, Mel, create a crisis!”
There was silence.
“Leave it to me,” she finally said. “I’ll think of something. I’ll call you to let you know.”
“I’m in the house with her!” I whispered, like I was in a horror movie, “I can’t answer. You’ll have to text!” Yeah, right, like SMS has helped me to this point.
“No problem. I’ll be in touch.”
I picked up my thong, and the mail that hadn’t blown away. I walked back into the house to act all conniving again. Like a friggin’ Oscar winner.
Forty-three seconds later the phone rang.
“Oh, Hi, Amy,” I heard Suse begin. I chewed on some more bread. “Yep.” Pause. “Yep.” More pause. “Well that’s a production issue, Amy, I don’t need to be involved. You can sort that out.” The bread swelled in my throat. “Yeah, well, I’ll be in, but no earlier than three-thirty.”
I heard myself sigh, trying to clear the dough. I returned to my cage, and pulled out my ribbon.
* * * * *
By two o’clock, Suse had had enough. She’d eaten lunch alone while I sat in the study. She’d come in occasionally to ask for some Cheezels. With this, I would shrug, pointing at my log in page. She’d hoped we’d hang out. I’d hoped we wouldn’t.
“You’re not on this planet today, Mark,” she finally said, sighing. “I’m going into work. God knows that you don’t seem to have any interest in me.” I looked anywhere but at her.
Susan Ruth Brock left 101 Ford Street at 2.07pm. At 2.08pm, Claude’s carry-case was filled with dog food, toys and leads. At 2.09pm, by happy coincidence, my car started. By 2.33pm, Claude was in Moonee Ponds. There are fifteen sets of red lights across eight suburbs, and I think I ran all of them. There and back I drove, past home, and on to the florist. Ann had helped me order the six bunches of orchids and the final dozen Dancing Ladies that had only arrived from Singapore the day before. She marvelled at the complexity of the order.
“It’s the simplest thing I’ve done today,” I mumbled, glancing back at my car, hazard lights on, obstructing the intersection of my 43rd set of lights for the day.
She waddled out with me to help load the car. I think I knocked her as I drove off. At least I’d paid this time. I skidded up the drive at 2.51pm. Suse would be home at 5.45pm.
* * * * *
I finished the ribbon and wrote out the poem for each room. It was six months to the day since we’d first kissed, and there was a bunch, a poem, and some photos for each room to match its month. I cut the stems, littering the floor, and spilt a couple of vases, just to match my sweat.
I confirmed the restaurant, and our driver, set up the music and the slideshow, clayton-cleaned the entire house – things flung into the closest cupboard – and threw the champagne into the freezer. I hung a sheet in the entrance so that Suse could only walk one way through the house, gaffer-taping it to the seventy year-old varnish and paint. No time for niceties. It was crunch time.
And then I began the ribbon. Like I said, there was 183 metres of the stuff. I knew that it would start with the first text at the front door and end in the ring box with the last, trailing anticlockwise through the rooms. Each room would have its theme, from initial contact, through friendship, past courtship, to soul mates. But I hadn’t sorted exactly where it would all go.
The ribbon went up, bit by bit, room by room. It began to take shape, like ill-placed Christmas tinsel. In the midst of all of this, at 4.49pm, Suse rang.
“Hi,” I said, as I slapped a bit of taped ribbon to a beer bottle, “what time will you be home?”
“Well,” she sighed, hoping I’d landed back on earth, “after my appointment finishes.”
“At six?” I asked ever more desperate.
“Five forty-five,” she said, “I know how important it is…”
“…to know when to put the pizzas on!” Ribbon stuck awkwardly against the television. “Exactly!”
“See you then, honey.”
“See you then!” I yelled, dropping the phone into a vase.
I grabbed the roll of tape and continued the job, initially fastidiously, then carefully, after this haphazardly and finally sloppily, through the entrance, the lounge, the living room, kitchen, study and spare room. It lay strewn through the house – as later described – like a Love Bomb had hit. It ended in the bedroom, once again circling, and ending, meaningfully, at the opening of the ring box.
Seven minutes before Suse arrived home, I was finished. The champagne had frozen then thawed, the ice bucket was ready, the glasses ready to go. I’d dried off the perspiration, sprayed on my shower-in-a-can, and changed my set of clothes. I’d confirmed our dinner, the music was on, the slideshow running, the ring in the box.
I saw the car pull up, and Suse get out. Through her sunglasses, I read her confusion, her head cocked to the left, as she looked at my dead car, now backed-in so the cars met face to face, kissing. She walked slowly to the front door.
Like a burglar caught in the act, I heard the wire-door open from beyond the hanging sheet. It moved slightly in the breeze; I saw her shadow at its feet. She took two deliberate steps. I imagined her confronted with her first vase of orchids, a couple of photos of us, and a poem. And then I envisaged her seeing the ribbon, attached to the door latch, and the very first message:
‘Hey Suze, thanks for the chats, the debriefs, the laughs, the yoga and the lift. Great to get to know you, groover. You’ve bookended my weekend with smiles.’ Initial contact.
I waited there for minutes, days, weeks, as I visualised her walking, from room to room, from bunch to bunch, from poem to poem, from photo to photo, all the time surrounded by the paper swirl of our story. My hands sweated behind my back; I checked again that the ring was there. I looked at the champagne for an answer, a sign. It gave me nothing.
Finally, minutes later, I saw a shadow. And then I saw Suse emerge from around a corner. Tears streamed down both cheeks. I took that as a good sign. All the time, it felt right, powerfully right. Nothing more, nothing less. This was our time.
She hugged me tight, her snot resting against my shoulder. I took her hands in my sweaty, sweaty palms. I said something, bumbled something, got down on a knee. I forgot, got up, grabbed the box, and got down again. I bumbled some more.
And she said yes.