This short story won second prize in the annual short story competition conducted by the Sunshine Coast Literary Association (2009).
Bryce tolerated book signings as a necessary evil. He felt stale, the novelty long gone. The critics had been unkind this time, one dismissing his work as formulaic, lacking originality. To the well once too often. He craved renewed inspiration, a breakthrough novel that would take him from the dingy recesses of bookshops, away from smiling for the peasants, for Rita with love from John.
‘Excuse me.’ She was waiting, expectant, so familiar yet he struggled to place her. Surely they’d met; serene beauty above a model’s figure, tentative smile, an air of guileless simplicity. Hardly forgettable. She moved closer, holding out her copy to him.
‘What shall I write?’
‘Good Lord,’ he said. ‘Penny. As in Penny from the book?’
She smiled, eyes downcast. ‘Yes, from the book.’
He saw her at once as he left the bookshop; lost, vulnerable, peering one way and then the other as if searching for a landmark amid the peak hour chaos. Her clothes were dated, the style of an earlier era perhaps. He knew little of fashion other than its power to induce conformity. She did not fit this scene.
‘Hello again. Are you waiting for someone?’
She shook her head. ‘It’s all so strange, not what I expected.’
‘You’re not from the city?’
She smiled. ‘So many questions. I don’t know where to go.’
‘I could take you somewhere. A hotel, perhaps?’
‘I have no money.’ Frank, disarming, innocent. He took the bait, if bait it was.
‘You’d better come with me, tell me about it.’
‘I have no idea what to do, Stella. Two days and she’s still in my spare room, my spare PJs, helps me to cook but is lost in the kitchen, fascinated by the TV, can’t or won’t tell me anything useful. Just that she found herself there at the bookshop, my novel in her hand. She saw me signing copies, joined the line. I need you to help me sort it out.’
‘I’m your publisher, Bryce, not your agony aunt. She’s a nutter. Chuck her out.’
‘Makes sense. But I can’t. She’s so…so trusting, I suppose. And she has nothing; no possessions, no means of support.’
‘Spoken like a true white knight. Have you slept with her?’
‘Jesus, Stella. What do you take me for?’
‘For what you are, Bryce. Let me guess. You asked her and she said no?’
‘It wasn’t like that. She said all right, if I wanted to, but she hadn’t much experience. That stopped me in my tracks. Why are you laughing?’
‘You’re a funny man. Now listen. Get rid of her; get back to work. Your reviews are shit this time. It’s worked for you until now but they’re right, you need to inject something fresh. Enough of the larger than life heroes, heroines on pedestals, tragic twists. They sell, people love escapism and a good cry, but you have to move on if you want to go up a notch, join the big guys.’
‘Well, thanks, Stella. I appreciate your support.’
She kissed his cheek. ‘Gotta run. Call me when you have something.’
Bryce did his best.
‘Penny, you’re a lovely girl but I must be alone. That’s how I write. Shut up in here, on my own, as long as it takes. I can’t do that while I’m worrying about who you are and what’s happened in your real life. Tell you what. I’ll buy you a suitcase and whatever clothes you need. A ticket back to wherever you came from. Some cash to tide you over. That’s what you really need, isn’t it? To go back to whatever you’re running from, face reality?’
She was compliant, eyes troubled but no hint of resistance, nothing he could counter, just the vulnerability that had made him want to protect her.
‘I understand, Bryce. I’m sorry to be a bother. But where will I go?’
‘I can’t tell you that. You must know something. Parents, siblings, places where you lived, went to school. Surely something rings a bell?’
‘No. I’ve told you. All I know is what’s in your book. Perhaps I should go to Geraldton, look for the old house. Someone there might remember me.’
‘That was almost a century ago. The house is probably long gone. Good God, what am I saying? None of that is real. I’d better take you to my doctor.’
‘It’s very odd, Bryce. She’s physically healthy, quite rational, told me about her life in Western Australia. But it didn’t quite fit, like she was describing a time long gone. Then she told me about an adventure she had with a guy called Richard. He was obsessed with her, forced her to go with him to Broome and Darwin, chasing stolen pearls.’ He shook his head. ‘I think she must have had some kind of shock, thinks she’s someone else. An amnesiac reaction, perhaps. Not my field. Why are you looking at me like that?’
Bryce laughed. ‘Sorry. She’s told you about the plot of my last novel.’
‘Really? And you say she has no identification; you don’t know anything about her, just took her in and looked after her because she had nowhere to go?’
‘Yes. She turned up at a book signing. It’s weird, but she’s a dead ringer for the protagonist. Now I can’t bring myself to throw her out because she’s just being so bloody nice about it that my knees buckle at the thought of her being alone, out there at the mercy of God knows what. Please tell me none of this is happening.’
‘Sorry, it is. You could take her to the hospital, tell your story and they’ll admit her for psychiatric assessment. I’ll write you a note.’ He scribbled briefly on his pad. ‘But I think you should try the police first. She’s beautiful, well spoken, physically undamaged, just lost. Somebody must know her, must be looking for her.’
Bryce felt the weight come off his shoulders. Not the most practical of men, he now had directions.
‘Thanks, doc. I should have done that in the first place. I’ll get back to you.’
‘What a lovely man,’ she said. ‘He was so interested in me. Where are we going now?’
‘The police. You’re a missing person. Someone will be looking for you.’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t think so.’
She was right. The police found no answering description or photograph listed under missing persons. The sergeant was not happy when Bryce admitted that Penny might not be her real name.
‘You’re wasting my time, sir.’ A snigger as Bryce turned to leave. ‘She’s dead set gorgeous. Why don’t you keep her?’
‘Thanks,’ said Bryce. ‘You’ve been a big help.’
Outside, she took his hand.
‘I’m giving you so much trouble. I’ll go now, wherever you say.’
‘Don’t be silly. Let’s eat. I’ll think of something.’
Tomorrow he would take her to the hospital, let them run the tape over her. He supposed that they’d have to provide some treatment, perhaps put her away somewhere. There were places for the mentally ill. He cringed at the thought. What if they carted her off to some house of horrors; some place where the attendants would take advantage of her vulnerability, pass her around like a good book?
A week later he was still vacillating; by then obsessed with her, even making plans to establish a new identity for her, take her in permanently. But could it last? Practical issues aside, there was an impermanence about her. Like a migratory bird she’d alighted on his life but would surely fly off as suddenly as she’d come. And what about his writing? As long as she stayed he too was in limbo. He was distracted, unable to work, unable to cope with her unwavering acceptance and faith in him. Surely there must be a way to provoke a negative reaction, expose her as a real person with flaws, ulterior motives.
He took to staying out late, seeking reassurance of his own normality among acquaintances and strangers, coming home drunk to confront her caring goodness. She’d have a meal of sorts waiting, never a complaint as she helped him to his bed, letting him take her if he wished. As if it were a service, like a hot bath or a shoulder rub. He hated that, hated himself when he sobered.
‘Didn’t you feel anything?’
‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry. I’ll try to get better at it.’
‘But you weren’t a virgin. You’ve had boyfriends?’
‘Only one. Nick. He was my life.’ Bryce slumped on the lounge, head in hands. Yes, she’d had a boyfriend. Her first love and his name was Nick, a soldier who’d gone off to war. He got up, took her by the shoulders, shook her gently. ‘Nick was only words in my book. You are not from there, do you understand? Whoever or whatever you are, you are not that Penny.’
The time came when he couldn’t work at all. He tried but her presence surrounded him, stifling his creativity, always there in the room next to his office, the kitchen, the bedroom. No escape, no answers. He could not bring himself to take her to the hospital, accepting instead his doctor’s offer of a referral to a psychiatrist. Penny was cooperative as always. The psychiatrist listened, made notes and arranged a battery of tests. Bryce sat with her to hear the results.
‘It’s a very difficult and unusual situation. There is nothing to indicate that you’re just telling a story, Penny, making it up as you go along. But clearly you are not your usual self. I believe that something hugely stressful has happened to you; some traumatic experience that triggered a powerful reaction, put you into what we call a fugue state.’
Bryce was incredulous.
‘You mean a kind of shock that took her out of her normal life and somehow she found herself in a bookshop, asking me to sign my book for her? For Christ’s sake, that’s the sort of thing I make up. It can’t be for real.’
‘It can be. Frankly, we still have much to learn about this condition. On the plus side, if my diagnosis is correct then Penny will eventually come out of it.’
Bryce stared at him. ‘Eventually?’
The psychiatrist shrugged. ‘I can’t be more specific. Fugue states typically last for days, but can persist for months. I’d like to see you for treatment, Penny, to see if we can explore what might have happened to you.’
She’d had several sessions now without result. Bryce’s frustration grew into desperation. He must resolve this mess, get back his real life. Yet he couldn’t throw her out, back into the impersonal crowd on the busy street where he’d found her. No matter what her true background, she didn’t deserve that. And she was engrossingly loveable, the perfect mate. Like the Penny he’d created, she was as flawless as she was beautiful. Every trait, every nuance of expression, her very speech flowed straight from his keyboard. And now that she’d learned to use the kitchen and laundry appliances, he’d never been so well served. She was perfection, a beautiful witch, had even read the book on sex she’d asked him for. Now she performed admirably before retreating hastily to the shower.
‘You mustn’t rush off like that, Penny. A great part of sex is the closeness afterwards.’
‘Yes, I read that. But it’s a bit…messy. I’ll get used to it. Please don’t be angry.’
Bryce told Stella about it. She was unimpressed.
‘You’ve got it bad, Bryce. Time to get her out of there, lay off the booze, get productive for Christ’s sake. This is your living, remember. And mine. A crazy author I can do without.’
He left her office, walked the streets for hours before turning into a bar. He needed a joint, an indulgence he’d long since forsaken. He found his mark, sat for a while in the men’s room taking the hit. Yes, so bloody good, slowing down, thinking clearly now. This fugue state thing had to be bullshit. Bloody psychiatrists, all theory and no results. I’ll go home and speak to her, reasonably and sensibly. Pack the bags I bought you, the clothes and the toiletries, the game is over and it’s been lovely having you but this is not Adventureland. This is my life.
She heard him out, no argument, how can she be so bloody compliant when I’m ditching her. He begged her. Please fight with me, hit me, scream at me for the exploitative bastard I’ve been, I can’t do it if I’m not angry. You must understand that I have to be angry. But in the end it was he who left, back to the bars, a solace of sorts in the forbidden pleasures. He’d have moments of clarity when he’d rush back to his keyboard, trying to get his thoughts down while the drug-fuelled inspiration lasted, every start false. He’d leave again, now a soft target for the drug pushers, waking in cold and unfriendly places.
A month later Bryce passed the point of no return. He came and went, sometimes absent for days, gaunt and unshaven. Depressed, listless, avolitional. He needed her now, not she him. She made no complaints, always welcomed him with her open, uncritical smile. Hot food that he couldn’t get down, stripping with him in the shower to clean him up, putting him to bed, loving him. He’d apologize, tell her not to worry. Just a temporary thing; can’t work so I have to explore new surroundings, find new concepts. She’d nod agreement. Just be careful, mustn’t keep hurting yourself. But he’d go out again, leave her a little money from his dwindling savings, back to the magic powder that raised him up.
The night came when he overdosed. She found him, slumped among the drug paraphernalia littering the bedside table and floor, not breathing. His doctor came as soon as she called. Too late. He knew from experience what the autopsy would reveal.
‘Shit!’ he exploded. ‘How could it come to this?’
She didn’t answer; wasn’t there. Concerned, he searched the apartment. No sign of her, just her clothes. He notified the police of Bryce’s death, kept looking as he waited. There was a book, open on the coffee table. He glanced at it, her name jumping from the page. Penny, weeping silently, the letter in her hand, with deepest regret I have to inform you…your fiancée Nicholas Peterson…killed in action in France. A model soldier…finest traditions of the Service.
The police and paramedics came, left again with Bryce’s body. The doctor made to follow but was drawn back, his attention caught by the rustling of pages. He reached to close the book, must be the breeze yet nothing open, bending in shock at the harsh triumph of the words, the once sweet voice that had told him of her unlikely adventures. ‘Got the bastard.’