Thin Skin

From Susan Beinart’s Thin Skin manuscript:  This excerpt first published in Bondi Writers’ Newsletter in July 2013

Lisa has gone to Sorrington Rehab to visit her brother, Leon, who is a patient there.

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I had my follow-up steak at the pub – pizza’s the next best thing in this town – two nights after being there with the doc. I hurried past the rocking bar, its whistling drunks, into the almost-empty dining room. I was thinking of that time at Ruthie’s when Leon’d called me a bitch; I wondered why I’d bothered to visit him. Then I saw the chef prowling behind the salad bar. He grinned at me. Oh no, I thought. Creeped-out by his loose, eager lips, I felt naked without the buffer of the doc beside me.

The chef had greeted the doc the other night; clearly, every local knew this doctor. In fact, everyone here must have known everyone else. Perhaps they even knew me. What these people weren’t up on – for how could they be? – was that my brother was in their psych clinic. Or perhaps they were. This was a small town, its hospital a life-blood institution.

‘Welcome back,’ the young chef said. His gawky ears stuck out as if they were pleased to see me.

‘I’ll have the porterhouse again. Well-done, with salad.’ I hoped this twenty-year-old wouldn’t flirt with me. Long-legged and restless, he looked too much like Leon.

‘Good choice,’ he said, and in the darkish room his gaze wove away, towards the only table with occupants on its stiff pink chairs. A man and a woman sat there, drinking. With his snoutish nose, short fat neck and massive abdomen that rose from the chair, the man looked like the aardvark from Auntie Harriet’s African animal book, a sandy-skinned aardvark seated at a table. The woman, I saw with a jolt, was Leon’s nurse: Nurse Lynne. She was dolled-up in velvet. She saw me looking and waved. I waved back.

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‘That’s Mum,’ the chef said. ‘She’s here to try out me cooking. I hear you met up at the hospital, that you’re visiting your brother.’ So much for any privacy, I thought.

I twisted my gaze towards the salad bar and saw a bowl of lettuce with tomato wedges and a few dreary onion rings behind glass. A wooden bowl held beetroot slices with curled edges. I frowned at these tired salads and wondered why the green beans from two nights ago weren’t there. With the doc beside me, it had all looked fresher.

The chef placed a black bowl between the others. ‘Potatoes with chives,’ he said, pointing at some green flecks riding whipped peaks of mayonnaise. He’d put a similar salad in there on my first night but it had looked better.

I shook my head. ‘I’ll have vegies instead.’ Tonight, it all seemed cockeyed.

‘Why don’t you go and sit with Mum?’ the chef said. I looked at the nurse’s table and saw the aardvark staggering away, his snout pointed at the patterned pub carpet. ‘Jonesy’s missing the barmaid.’ The chef winked. ‘And her beer. Mum’ll be happy if he stays put in the bar.’

As her son spoke, the nurse stood. ‘This seat’s for you, love,’ she called. This time, unlike at the hospital, her whole face smiled at me.

‘Go on,’ the chef said. ‘Mum wants to be rid of Mr flirty Jones. Yeah, she can do with your company.’ No-one here was flirting with me: I felt a flicker of sadness.

I sat at Nurse Lynne’s table but, before I could relax, she went off to get some salad from the buffet. Then came back, held up her empty glass, shrugged and left to get a bottle of champagne. The aardvark’s drained middy stood on the edge of the cloth, unwanted. A bleak mustiness and thuds from the bar fanned my alienation. A slack-jawed boy came by to sweep away the empty glasses; they clattered on his tray. When the nurse finally returned, her smile softening her sharp hair, I was glad to see her.

‘He’s a good sort,’ she said of Leon. I hadn’t asked her opinion. She lit a smoke and aimed the tip at me. ‘Smart kids like him have better luck beating addiction.’ Her crumbed fish arrived with my steak; the muscled waitress from the other night brought them. Fat, curly chips rose off the nurse’s plate. As for me, I’d scored courgettes and honeyed carrots. ‘Call me Lynne. I much prefer it,’ she said, throwing back her glass of champers.

The bar-boy scurried by again and the place filled with loud-shirted revellers. ‘Your son’s a mean cook,’ I said, cutting my slab of steak, which felt tougher than last time. ‘And thanks for offering hope for Leon. It makes a difference.’ While we ate, the air in the pub became almost pleasant. My champagne in its thick glass tasted mellow.

‘Doc’s got a background to him,’ Lynne said, and a trill of shock went through me.

I raised my glass, my blood rushing. ‘What’s he done?’ Somehow, my voice stayed steady.

As the nurse’s lips parted, an accelerating engine outside gave off a menacing growl, as if it were spewing out smoky hatred. I turned, looked through the wide window. A ute with bull bars was mounting the footpath backwards. It was about to crash through the glass. I half-rose, gripping the table, but Lynne sat still, as if the bull bars and spewed noise were irrelevant. She yawned at me. ‘Those kids climb that ramp all the time,’ she said as the ute sputtered and sped off. ‘There’s nothing else for them out here. Even the cops’ve given up on them.’

I sat again, fearing the ute had stolen a doc-revealing moment, but Lynne went on. ‘That dark horse, Doc, lives alone in sprawling, out-of-town luxury. They say a lady from Sydney visits.’ She sighed. ‘Doc’s seen as a catch over here. That lady doesn’t come too often.’ She sat there, staring into space, and I wondered about her own interest in the doc.

‘Why did he come here, to Sorrington?’ I drained my glass and the room seemed to tilt a bit.

‘Doc’s never discussed it but there’s talk of a family in Sydney, a marriage gone sour long ago. Kids who don’t see him anymore. Some of our staff have dark histories, including me, I have to say. I really shouldn’t be drinking. It feels acceptable though, since it practically goes with the patient territory.’ She hiccoughed. Our bottle of champers was empty and I wasn’t sure how much of it was in her.

‘Do you think Doc was an addict?’

‘The main thing,’ she dropped her arm on the cloth, ‘is we’re free of our pasts. Including me, to be honest. We’re relatively rehabilitated. But I’m not sure about Doc, if he took drugs or not. All I know is, he’s a puzzle, that one. And as you know, he makes rubbish choices in sandwiches.’ Then she was giggling over the aardvark’s mate, Frank, a male nurse in Leon’s ward who ate hot chillies. She stopped suddenly, saying she’d said too much and could get into trouble. I told her she wouldn’t, but couldn’t make her spill more on the doc, so I left when the aardvark came tottering back.

© Susan Beinart

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