Audra didn’t attach diamonds to the walls of public conveniences to begin with. That came later.
One day, sitting in the first cubicle of a public toilet situated in the centre of the town of Keith, she realised she was waiting for the other ‘customer’ in the block to leave so she wouldn’t be forced to interact with her. She imagined what would happen if they emerged and walked towards the sink at the same time.
‘Hot,’ the other woman would say.
‘Very,’ Audra would reply, grimacing, rather than smiling, because smiling was not a talent that came naturally to her.
‘Come far?’ the irritating Everywoman would ask.
‘From Melbourne,’ Audra would admit, because she was raised to be polite.
‘Where’s home?’ Mrs Interference would ask.
‘Adelaide,’ Audra would reply.
‘Travel safe,’ the woman would call out cheerily.
‘And you,’ Audra would insincerely offer.
No, it was better to stay put until the coast was clear.
She looked around. The walls were mission brown brick and surprisingly unscarred with messages from dissolute youth. There were two toilets between Adelaide and Melbourne she was prepared to use because they were reliably cleaner than most. The other was at Kaniva in a quaint little Victorian building just off the main road.
She stared at the brick wall to her left. Was anything interesting happening on that wall? Any little bugs making a home? Could she make out animals or faces in the roughness of the bricks? No, it was just a wall, and she had probably stared at the same set of bricks twenty or thirty times now as she travelled regularly to and from the Capitals. If those bricks could bear witness, they would comment on her increasing girth, and the way gravity was forcing her mouth ever more into a downward arc of disappointment and detachment.
Audra thought about why people made their mark in public places. That led her to muse about what message she would leave behind. No point putting a name or a number because they would be cleaned off. But a little secret fingerprint would be fun. At each visit she could see if it had been noticed. Like a little spy message left for someone to collect. A testament to the fact that she’d been here before.
When she returned to the car, she rummaged around in the boot. She fished out a bottle of crimson nail polish, and walked back to the cubicle. She locked herself in again. Putting her ear to the cubicle wall, she paused, breath held, listening for approaching footsteps.
Studying the bricks for a moment, she chose one just above eye-level, close to the hinged door. On it, she carefully painted a box, about half an inch square. She returned to the car, thrilled. All the way home, she wondered whether that little red square would still be there at her next visit in a month’s time, when she drove back to attend a patron’s dinner at the Gallery.
Before making her return trip, she made purchases in a hardware shop. She distilled red and gold enamel into small glass jars, and packed a fine brush. Audra liked putting things into neat containers, including her life, and found in her cupboard a leather box with a fine patina into which her new kit fitted perfectly.
She had to stop herself from speeding from Adelaide to Keith. As she walked towards the toilets, she heard a funny noise escape from her mouth, and realised it was a laugh. She was shocked by its novelty.
Excited, she closed the cubicle door and checked. Yes! Her little square was still there. She carefully added a small gold spot to the middle of the square. She had spent hours deciding what to paint on the red square. It must be discrete.
She raced on to Kaniva, and in the first cubicle, looked for a place to paint a square. She chose the leg of the wooden door frame. Most satisfactory. It would have its gold dot on the return trip if it hadn’t been touched.
At the dinner that night in the gallery, Audra barely spoke to others. This was not unusual, and the young woman assigned by the board to ensure she was having a good time knew her silent ways and paid no special attention. The girl was more interested in trying to impress a middle-aged man at their table who was apparently someone important, and to whom Audra had been introduced, but couldn’t be fagged remembering. What was exercising Audra’s mind was what to leave behind at Keith on the way home. What should be the third level of the secret message?
She left Melbourne earlier than usual the next morning, keen to see whether her red square had survived at Kaniva. Her message was intact. She applied her gold dot.
She wasn’t sure what to add to her work in Keith, so she decided just to stop and visit what she’d done so far.
Taking position in the cubicle, she scanned the wall for her square.
She gasped. Surely in the right hand top corner of the red square was…. a little black tick. It looked as though it had been made with a texta pen. There was a thicker downward stroke and a lighter upward one that tapered away in a devil-may-care feathery hint of black. In the air, she practiced the way she would make a tick herself, and yes, that was surely what it was. Someone had received her message, and understood. Someone was leaving a message in return. She realised she was breathing nosily with her mouth open, and snapped it shut to think.
Returning to the car for the kit, she walked back to the cubicle and made another red square, this time on a brick close to the floor. She was due to return to Melbourne in three weeks’ time. Would there be some answering symbol?
She travelled home elated, turning over in her mind what her next message might be. Despite her financial support for galleries in two cities, she did not see herself as a creative person. This was the reason she admired and funded those who were. This adventure was such a departure from who she thought she was and it made her giddy with possibility and gratitude. Some force outside of her understanding of the world had fathomed the smudge she’d left behind, and tipped their hat in response.
Audra had known little recognition in her life. Her husband had married her for money and family connections, and had treated her as a grey, distorted shadow, doggedly and necessarily attached to his bright strides. She’d never lifted a loaded brush to make a commitment on the primed linen canvass handed to her by her parents. Now, for the first time, she had tentatively splashed a little colour at the easel, and something was taking shape. It was exhilarating.
The weeks until her next trip seemed to stretch like the endless summer holidays of primary school. Her preparations were in hand well before the time to pack the car. The necessary materials were acquired, and a visit made to the family strongbox.
When she reached Keith, the second square, even without its gold dot, sported another tick. She was ready. She carefully extracted from her kit a small blue diamond, and using the recommended jewellers cement, placed the gem in the centre of the first gold dot.
Racing to Kaniva, she found a tick on the red square. She extracted a small south sea pearl, and affixed it to the gold dot.
The next two days in Melbourne were agony. She stood on uncomfortable heels making minimal nods to pretend she was delighted with the latest acquisitions, purchases she knew she had largely funded. On departure she made it to Kaniva in good time, and ran into the cubicle.
She dropped to the seat, and leaned down to search for her square. The pearl was gone, and in its place was a word typed in seven font and cut to cover the hole. It read: “nice”.
She hadn’t been sure what to expect, but this was acceptable, intriguing and possibly wonderful. Opening her kit, she extracted a small opal and secured it in place where the pearl had been.
Back in the car, she found herself singing. She didn’t know many songs, so she belted out a few Sunday school hymns about sunbeams, farmers sowing fields, and all things bright and beautiful. She sang most of the way to Keith.
The diamond on the square in Keith was gone. There was no word glued over the hole, but she noted a scrap of paper wedged into the door frame. She pulled it out and read:
‘Adelaide to Melbourne is behind you. Where to next? I’ll find you.’
Audra exited the cubicle at the same time as another woman left hers.
‘Hot,’ the woman said.
‘Isn’t it though?’ smiled Audra.
‘Going far today?’ the woman asked.
‘Actually,’ said Audra, as she flashed the woman a rare smile. ‘I am.’
Words by Denise Picton