When we first met Prue, my sister pulled me into the kitchen to pass judgement, as we did with all of Andrew’s girlfriends. ‘This one’ll end up taking to drink or finding religion,’ Janey said.
Prue’s claim to fame was that before she met our brother, she’d been Paul Keating’s girlfriend. This seemed so unlikely that Janey and I stood around the barbecue eyeing Prue and trying to work out if it could possibly be true. She was attractive in a willowy way, with brown eyes and a smile that she bestowed on us as if we’d just won a prize. Smug, you’d probably say. As if she’d turned down the chance to become Prime Minister’s wife because she’d found a Higher Calling. Not that we could see Drew as anyone’s higher calling.
These days, Janey and I argue over whether the boyfriend was Keating, Prime Minister, or Kennett, arrogant former Premier of our State.
‘It was Keating,’ I tell her. ‘Remember, we even said she looked like him, that we could give her a haircut and wheel her out on public occasions and she could do Keating stand-ins?’
Janey doesn’t remember. And she was lucky enough to move to another suburb while I lived next door to Prue and Drew in the street where we grew up. They bought Dad’s old house and we lived next door because Dad liked his kids close by and helped us buy it before he died. It seemed like a good idea at the time. It wasn’t. Prue had a penchant for pet names. I became Mompsie to the four girls she had in quick succession.
How does Auntie Marg become Mompsie?
‘Mompsie, she’d call over the fence. ‘I’m just popping down to the Mission. Could you mind the girls?’
Or: ‘Mompsie, I’ve got meditation this afternoon, could you fill in for an hour?’
Or later, much later: ‘Mompsie, we’re going to India to meet Sai Baba and we want you to come too.’
Beneath a giant framed photograph of Sai Baba, Prue draped herself over Drew, stroked his rapidly thinning hair and cuddled up to him as she always did when I came near. ‘Bear wants you to come,’ she said, gazing dreamily at Drew. ‘Bear will pay your fare, won’t you Bear?’
When Mum died, Janey and I practically raised our younger brother. How had he become a Bear? What sort of power did this woman wield? By then Prue was walking around the house chanting prayers all day with a holier than thou expression on her face while Bear rushed home from the office and fed and ironed and tidied. By then the whole family was vegetarian, but Prue didn’t shop or cook. In a moment of parental exhaustion, Drew told me that at the Buddhist centre where Prue first found her calling, one of the monks had taken her aside and explained that her first obligations were to family, that it was no good serving soup to the poor if your own kids were going hungry. He obviously didn’t know about Mompsie’s soup kitchen next door.
Eventually Drew found religion too. I don’t judge him too harshly. With Prue, the path of least resistance was always the wisest one. I was almost hooked in myself. I’d see her in the chemist shop buying eighty dollar Lancôme lipsticks and swanning around in the best designer gear while I haunted the markets. Maybe Sai Baba knew something I didn’t. I was separated by then and my boys were depressingly pleased at the prospect of staying with their father while I deserted them for a holiday in India with a bit of child minding thrown in. Surely I could put up with Prue for a couple of weeks? Besides Drew needed me, didn’t he?
A friend of Prue’s came with us. Patsy was – is – a beautiful woman, small and slim, fine blonde hair. She reminds me of a fairy, except for her eyes which seem haunted, as if the memory of finding her husband dead at forty on the bedroom floor has never left her. In India she wilted in the heat like a pink carnation. She looked permanently confused. I knew exactly how she felt.
It was Prue’s third visit to Sai Baba. She was hoping for a personal audience with the Great One which hadn’t happened before. Hoping is too mild a word for Prue’s intent. Determined. Desperate. Dogged. Any of them will do. Twice a day we joined hundreds of others in the compound, waiting for Sai Baba to appear through the jewelled door of his temple where he lived with his chosen handmaidens. Not that I have proof of that but there did seem to be an awful lot of young Indian girls hanging around with those lazy kohl-lined eyes. They followed him into the compound, arranged his robes and practically dusted the ground he walked on. There was plenty of dust around, which was one of the things Prue forgot to mention. She also forgot to mention the sexes were separated. Drew spent his time in a huge tin shed dormitory with the men. I won the jackpot with Prue, Patsy and the girls.
Prue informed us that the American Air Force had done some kind of research into that part of northwest India where Sai Baba held court. She said they’d found a strange magnetic field close to Bangalore that registered differently to anywhere else in the world. Wasn’t that amazing? Patsy seemed impressed.
He probably has a million magnets inside his temple, I’d think as I stood in the sweltering heat waiting for him to appear. And why wouldn’t dust magically fall from his fingertips as we’d seen happen; he probably had it tucked up his sleeve in a specially constructed pouch that he could tweak to let drop when the Prues of the world caught his eye. Fortunately, after we’d been there about a week, she did catch his eye. She had a way of gliding through the crowd with Drew and Patsy, me and the girls in tow as if she had special rights, the sort of glide that would have been a great asset if she’d ended up with Keating. With Prue gliding along beside, he might never have patted the Royal behind and set Republicanism back a hundred years.
Every day, Prue led us to the best spot near the temple door. It didn’t matter if a row of height-challenged devotees were already in position, she claimed front row as her exclusive right and sat with hands in prayer posture like a girl at first communion. My hands were never in prayer posture, they were too busy grabbing the girls as they ran around mounding rose petals into flower castles on the temple walkway or making spit balls from the dirt to flick at each other, which is how I missed the moment when Prue was chosen. I saw Sai Baba walking towards us, saw people dropping to their knees, genuflecting or doing whatever took their fancy from varied and motley religious traditions, when one of the twins pinched the other and I had a fight on my hands. By the time I had them in an iron grip, the Great One had passed, I’d missed the falling dust and Prue was prostrate on the ground.
Patsy and I got her back to the dormitory. She seemed to have blissed out in a disturbing way. Her eyes didn’t focus and she smiled like a cat overdosed on cream, which wasn’t all that helpful after an hour or so when the girls wanted to have their hair done in dreadlock plaits, and could they wear their new saris, and why hadn’t Sai Baba dropped dirt on them, and what did it mean?
Whatever it meant, Prue wasn’t telling. I hung around outside Drew’s dormitory until he caught sight of me. I told him she was acting a bit strange and now that we’d got what we’d come for, how long before we could leave? The sun was burning a hole in my head. I looked around for shade but there was only the veranda of the men’s dormitory which I knew was off limits. Sweat was running down my legs and pooling in my shoes. Puddles under my arms were wetting the shawl that I wore wrapped over my upper body. Foolishly, I flung it off.
Prue was there in an instant. ‘Mompsie! What – are – you – doing?’
‘Prue—’ warned Drew.
‘Bear!’ warned Prue.
‘I’m hot,’ I said. ‘That’s what I’m doing. Being hot.’
Prue grew a few centimetres. ‘Mompsie, you are a temptress.’
From the minute we’d arrived in the compound, we’d had to wear shawls over our clothes to hide the shape of our breasts. ‘But why?’ I’d bleated, looking to Patsy for support and not finding any. ‘Why cover ourselves with another layer in this sort of heat?’
‘Because,’ said Prue, ‘Sai Baba says women must cover themselves to prevent men being tempted.’
‘Can’t they look after their own temptations?’
‘We are the temptresses,’ pronounced Prue, ‘so we are responsible for their temptations.’
I didn’t argue. But when she stood in that compound hissing down at me, I found some extra height of my own. ‘Well, this temptress is out of here. I – have – had – enough.’
‘How like you to spoil my special day,’ Prue sniffed when we were back in the dormitory. ‘Envy is a terrible thing, Mompsie. I’ve always known you’ve found it difficult to share Bear with me. If we stayed a while longer, Sai Baba might choose you and you’d find you were a much better person for it. It could change your whole life.’
It changed Prue’s life. And Drew’s. Patsy’s too, eventually. I didn’t see a lot of them after we returned. I was soon involved in a messy divorce and had three resentful sons on my hands, the youngest wearing earrings in every orifice, sporting a multi-coloured Mohawk and insisting on keeping a pet rat under his shirt. The girls began high school and grew almost as tall as Prue. In their new life, Prue and Drew were doing good works and counselling the poor and needy in their kitchen. Sometimes I saw the poor and needy arriving at their door and fury crawled up my back like my son’s rat. I couldn’t believe they had so much to give to others at a time in my life when I felt sucked dry of giving. I also had a lingering suspicion that if I’d been chosen by Sai Baba, maybe my life would have turned out differently and I’d be counselling the poor and wearing Lancôme lipstick.
Then one morning my sister burst in and poured herself a medicinal red. ‘Prue’s left Drew,’ Janey announced, almost choking. ‘She’s found a Guru who’s going to lead her to a higher level of spiritual awareness. That’s what she’s told Drew. And he believes it!’ She began to shriek. ‘She says she has to leave right now. In the middle of the girls’ exams. She says they’ll understand. What kind of mother is she?’ I realised I needed a red too. ‘There’s something weird about this,’ Janey said eventually, ‘and I’m going to find out what.’
With a little digging, Janey discovered that Prue had met her Guru Graham at the Mission, where together they served soup to the homeless. With a little more digging, she discovered Prue and Graham had set up house in a nearby suburb. Of course we told Drew, but he insisted they were living in celibate bliss. ‘Idiot,’ said Janey and wiped her hands of him. I didn’t have the heart to pursue it. Drew was soon submerged in the female equivalent of earrings and Mohawks and rats, so that most of the time I felt sorry for him. And only a little bit pleased. Sometimes.
Not long after, Drew and Patsy began dating. Soon they were inseparable. Patsy helped Drew through his divorce. She cleaned his house. She tolerated terrible insults from his daughters. And then one day she was wearing a diamond as big as a pea.
According to Janey, who had much better radar than me, Patsy already had three wedding gowns hanging in her wardrobe. Janey blamed Patsy’s sons for the unworn gowns, two horrible teens who drove men away in droves. ‘Another dress,’ Janey mused, ‘or perhaps she’ll wear one of the others. What do you think?’
I didn’t know what to think. Since Prue’s departure, Drew’s shoulders had rounded and he now had a bald crown with a ring of greyish curls around the edges like a monk. I wondered what Patsy saw in him yet in some ways they had the same haunted eyes, the same stiff backs that threatened to snap. Still, the possibility remained that this time Patsy would get to the altar. The date was set. Patsy bought another floaty dress. The invitations were sent, the reception menu picked over. But with only two months to go, Prue broke up with guru Graham.
Of course that’s not what she called it. She’d finished her studies. She’d reached her Higher Plane. She didn’t need a guru anymore. She hoped Bear didn’t mind but she wanted to see her daughters as much as she could because she’d missed them terribly. And would Bear mind if sometimes she came around and walked the dog?
Daughters forgive easily and they soon moved in with their mother in a suburb close by. Sometimes I see Prue walking the dog in our street. I swear he pulls on the lead as if he’d rather stay home, but Prue yanks him along. Even with his leg still cocked on a bush, she gives him a good pull, her mind on Higher Things.
Recently at Drew’s fiftieth, both Prue and Patsy were there. After Drew cut the cake, I dragged Janey into the kitchen. ‘What do you think?’ I said as we bundled slices of Black Forest onto plates. ‘There’s only a month to go. Do you think he’ll marry Patsy? Or is he dopey enough to go back to Prue?’
‘I dunno,’ she said, licking cream off a knife and staring contemplatively through the window. ‘But have you heard? The Keatings have split.’
I followed Janey’s gaze to Prue in the garden. ‘He’ll be single,’ I gasped. ‘And available.’
‘Should we tell her?’ I grabbed plates of cake and headed for the door. ‘Poor Keating,’ said Janey behind me. ‘He won’t know what hit him if Prue makes the right choice.’
Copyright: Suzanne McCourt, 2016. Previously published in Wet Ink literary journal.