The Idea of Perfection
“An arch is two weaknesses which together make a strength.”
. . . Leonardo da Vinci
Winner of the Orange Prize
The Idea of Perfection (1999) is about two people who seem the least likely in the world to fall in love. Douglas Cheeseman is an awkward engineer, the sort of divorced man you’d never look at twice. Harley Savage is a big, plain, abrasive woman who’s been through three husbands and doesn’t want another. Both of them bring all kinds of unhappy baggage to their meeting in the little town of Karakarook, New South Wales, population 1,374.
Being in Karakarook is something of a voyage of discovery for both of them. Unlike Felicity Porcelline, a woman dangerously haunted by the idea of perfection, they come to understand that what looks like weakness can be the best kind of strength.
The Idea of Perfection was a surprise winner of the Orange Prize, Britain’s richest literary prize, in 2001.
The Idea of Perfection is published in Australia by Text Publishing.
IN HIS EX-WIFE’S clever decorating magazines Douglas Cheeseman had seen mattress ticking being amusing. Marjorie had explained that it was amusing to use mattress ticking for curtains the same way it was amusing to use an old treadle Singer as a table for your maidenhair ferns. But he did not think the amusing aspect of mattress ticking being used as a curtain had made it as far as the Royal Hotel in Yuribee, NSW, pop 1374. He could feel the cold dust in the fabric as he held it back to look out the window.
Over the top of the corrugated iron roof next door, he could see nearly all of Karakarook. It looked as if it had just slid down into the bottom of the valley, either side of the river, and stayed there. Where the houses finished straggling up the sides of the hills there were bald curves of paddocks and further up, the hilltops were dark with bush. Above that was the huge pale sky, bleached with the midday heat.
From the window he could see part of Parnassus Road, as wide and empty as an airport runway, lying as if stunned under the sun. Along the strip of shops a few cars had parked diagonally into the gutters like tadpoles nosing up to a rock. A dog lay stretched out lifeless across the doorway of a closed-up shop. The awnings over the shops made jagged blocks of black shadow and the great radiance of the sun pressed down out of the sky.
A ute so dusty he could not tell what colour it was drove slowly in and angled into the gutter. Out of it got a man with a big round belly straining at a blue shirt, who disappeared under the awning of the shops opposite the Caledonian. Douglas could hear the squeak as a door was pushed open, and the thump as it closed again.
After a long period of stillness an old brown car appeared small at the end of the street, came slowly along and pointed itself tentatively in beside the ute. A woman got out and stood looking up and down the street with her hands on her hips. She did not seem to be worried by doing nothing more than standing and looking. She seemed pleased, in a stern way, and interested, as if Parnassus Road, Karakarook, was a diorama in a museum provided especially for her pleasure.
She was a big rawboned plain person, tall and unlikely, with a ragged haircut and a white teeshirt coming unstitched along the shoulder. It was a long time since she been young and it was unlikely that she had ever been lovely. She stood like a man, square-on. Her breasts pushed out the old teeshirt, but it was clear from the way she stood that she’d forgotten about breasts being sexy. Her breasts made bulges in her jumper the same way her knees made bulges in her black track pants, that was all.
She was not accessorised. Her teeshirt hung off her shoulders and came straight up to her neck. There was no collar, no scarf, no beads, no earrings. Her head just came up sternly out of the teeshirt saying, here I am, and who do you think you are?
Douglas stood with the curtain in his hand, watching her across the road as she looked at Parnassus Road exposed under the sky. A salt of the earth type.
Salt of the earth: that was one of Marjorie’s expressions. What she meant by that was, badly dressed.
The way the woman stood with her hands on her hips, looking down the street as if she owned it, he could imagine her life, a proper life anchored solid to the ground. There would be a big cheerful husband, uncomplicated children, fat red-cheeked grandchildren calling her Nanna. He could imagine the kitchen out on the farm, with the radio going on top of the fridge, the big bowl of eggs with the chook-poop still on them, the fridge door covered with magnets that said things like Bless this Mess.
A dog came along from somewhere and barked at her, making pigeons puff up in a scatter from the awning. She glanced at it, and he saw a frown darken her face.
He let the curtain fall and stepped back from the window. Then he stood in the dim room wondering why he had done that.
He looked at his watch but it did not tell him anything useful. He sat down on the bed, pulled off his boots. Considered, pulled them on again. He wanted to have another look out the window, but he did not want to be caught looking. It was only a kind of hunger, but it could be misunderstood.
Harley had seen him looking, the man holding back the curtain, with the D of the word CALEDONIAN hanging upside-down from a screw above his head. She had seen him drop the curtain and move back from the window, but she knew he was still there, perhaps still watching her, as this dog was, that had appeared from nowhere.
She had forgotten how empty a country town could be, how closed, how you could feel looked-at and large.
Further down the street past the Caledonian she could see the old picture theatre. You could tell what it had been from its shape, tall at the front and falling away steeply at the back. The brackets were still screwed on down the front of the building where the sign must have been, Odeon or Starlight. Now the whole lot was painted utility grey.
There was a piece of masonite screwed up on the wall, with a sign, hand-lettered, hard to read. She squinted towards it. COBWEBBE CRAFT SHOPPE, she read. OPEN WED & THUR, and beside it another one left over from the previous month, with a corner broken off, MERRY XMAS PEACE ON EAR.
She laughed without meaning to and the dog barked. Then it stopped as if to let her have a turn.
Get lost, she said.
Its tail began to swing from side to side. Opening its mouth it panted with its tongue hanging out, pulsing. It went on watching her closely, as if she was about to perform a magic trick.
It showed no sign of being about to get lost.
The Cobwebbe Crafte Shoppe still had the old ticket window from the picture theatre, and in the window she could see two quilts competing like plants for the light.
Harley glanced back at her car. It was not too late to get back in and drive away. No one would know, except this dog, and someone behind the curtain. As she stood hesitating, a rooster crowed lingeringly from somewhere, and a distant car horn went dah diddidy dah-dah. Then the silence pressed back in over the sounds.
She straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat.
Get lost, she told the dog again.
It sounded very loud in so much quiet.
The dog watched her as she looked right, looked left, looked right again. Nothing at all was moving, anywhere along Parnassus Road. It was just her and her shadow, and the dog and the shadow of the dog, as they crossed the road together. Under the awning of the Caledonian their shadows were swallowed in the larger shadow.
Looking along at the Cobwebbe Crafte Shoppe, not at where she was going, she walked straight into a man coming out of the doorway of the Caledonian. When they collided, he staggered backwards and nearly fell. She grabbed at a handful of his forearm, clutching at the fabric and the arm beneath, and he flailed out to steady himself, hitting her on the shoulder. Then they were both standing in the beer-smelling current of cool air from the doorway, apologising.
The man had a look of hysteria around the corners of his mouth. He wanted to blame himself.
My fault, he kept saying. Completely my fault. Stupid.
She had a feeling it was the man who had watched her from the window, but with his hat on it was hard to be sure.
Totally stupid. Not thinking at all.
So clumsy, Harley said. Me, I mean.
She did not look at him, but at the ground, where their shoes were arranged on the footpath like ballroom- dancing instructions. His were elastic-sided bushman’s boots that looked brand~new.
Did I hurt you? Hitting you?
She looked at him, surprised.
He pointed but did not touch.
I hit you, he said, humbly. There.
No, no, she said, although now he had mentioned it, she could feel the place hurting.
She looked at her own hand, large and plain, that had clutched at him, and wondered if she should ask whether she had hurt him.
Well, he said, and laughed a meaningless laugh.
A moment extended itself into awkwardness.
Well, he said again, and she said it too at the same moment.
Their voices sounded loud together under the awning. Harley felt as if the whole of Karakarook, behind its windows, must be watching this event that had burst into their silent afternoon: two bodies hitting together, two people standing apologising.
THERE HAD BEGUN to be a little atmosphere in the butcher’s shop. It had got so that Felicity tended to put off going to his shop. The problem was, the butcher was in love with her.
She hesitated outside the dusty window of the closed Karakarook Bakery. She wished there was something to look at, something to make hesitating look natural, but it seemed to have been a long time since the Karakarook Bakery had been open for business, and there was nothing in the window but a few shelves with a lot of dead flies on them.
The trouble with a little place like this was, a person could not dawdle too long on Parnassus Road without becoming conspicuous. You could not window- shop convincingly in Karakarook, unless you were in the marekt for dead flies. And there was no way you could sit somewhere and be watching the world go by. The world simply did not go by in Parnassus Road, Karakarook.
She brushed away a fly that was circling her face, and shook her arm when it landed there. Then she bent down and brushed her leg, although it had not landed there yet.
Sometimes, a person could actually be pleased at the diversion a fly could provide.
Partly, it was that the butcher was Chinese. She was no racist, and wanted him to know that she did not count it against him, him being Chinese. The trouble was, not wanting to be thought racist always seemed to make her too friendly. She could hear that her voice was a little too loud and a little too sprightly in the quiet shop. She smiled too much, and did not know how to stop.
She was no racist, but noticed, every time he spoke, how he spoke exactly the way everyone else did. She was no racist, but listened for something Chinese in the way he talked, the little foreign something. The funny thing was, it was never there. She had tried closing her eyes when he talked, and you would never have guessed. If you happened to find yourself with him in the dark for any reason, you would never know he was Chinese.
In the dark, he would sound just like any other man.
The woman from the craft shop had told her one day that Changs had been here, meaning in Karakarook, since the year dot. They had come for the gold in the first place, she said, but had the sense to see there was more money in food. She had caught herself thinking but it’s not the same. Her own family had only been Australian for two generations, but somehow it was different.
She was no racist. She was sure of that. But she never thought of Alfred Chang as Australian, in the way she herself was Australian. He was Chinese, no matter how long Changs had been Karakarook.
The street remained obstinately empty. She looked to the right, looked to the left, looked to the right again. There was no moving vehicle, anywhere, in any direction.
She checked her reflection sideways in the window of the bakery. She had always had a good bust, and the little top set it off well. In the reflection you would never imagine she had just turned forty-one. She had only just turned forty-one. A month hardly counted. Really, she was still only forty.
She swapped the basket from hand to hand, pushed her hair back behind her ear, and crossed the road. At the screen-door of Chang’s Superior Meats she waved at the cloud of flies gathered there and went in onto the sawdust. Behind her the door slapped back into place and a triumphant fly shot out ahead of her and up towards the ceiling.
Inside the shop it seemed dark after the sunlight and the air was heavy with the thick smell of meat. She glanced up to where the wall of fly-wire that ran from floor to ceiling met the white tongue-and-groove plank ceiling far above. A fan rotated slowly next to a blue insect-light. She could not see the fly that had come in with her, but it would not last long.
On the other side of the fly wire there was something human in size and shape. In the dim light it could have been either the butcher or a carcass on a hook. She peered, and the shape moved towards her.
He always seemed to enjoy saying her name. Somehow, he made the s sound especially noticeable.
She could see him now, granular behind the fly wire, turning away from the chopping block, slipping a knife into the holster on his hip, wiping his hands on his blue and white apron. She could see his big bland face, but could not see its expression behind the mesh.
She thought it might be like this, visiting someone in jail. The question was, who was the prisoner? Alfred Chang was at ease in his cage, with a peaceful purple- stamped carcass hanging beside him. It was she herself who felt like the trapped one.
Mrs Porcelline, he said again.
The way he said it, it was a name full of hisses. He stood smiling. She did not know how to break their gaze.
Would he think she was a racist if she looked away?
Morning, Mr Chang, she said. I’ll have six short- loin chops, please.
There was something about the word loin she did not like. Something slightly suggestive. Especially here with Alfred Chang looking at her that way.
She would have very much preferred Woollies in Livingstone, the meat all tidy in little polystyrene trays. So much more hygienic. Coming to Yuribee had been like stepping back thirty years: cutting the meat up separately for each customer, the sawdust on the floor, actual carcases hanging up for anyone to see.
It made it all rather personal. There was a kind of intimacy about the butcher knowing exactly what you were having for dinner.
Now he went out through the white-painted wooden door at the back and closed it behind him. The first time she had come here, she had given her order and watched him go out through the little door and had stood, shifting from foot to foot, for so long she wondered if he had forgotten her. She had imagined him going out into the backyard and sitting on a tree stump having a smoke.
Now, twelve months and many short-loins later, she knew that the door took him into the coolroom, and that it was best to sit in one of the chairs thoughtfully provided. But sometimes he was gone so long she wondered if he had died in there, or coagulated.
Today he returned quite quickly with a lump of meat and put it on the block, worn into a curve like a wave.
He stood side-on to her and reached into the big tube full of knives that hung from his belt. He brought out one, unhooked the sharpening steel from his belt, and started to strop with lingering movements. She could see the muscles of his shoulders moving under his shirt as he stroked away deliberately at the blade. She could see the muscles moving under his shirt.
He said something, but his voice was swaddled by flywire, the space of air above him, the dim coolness of the shop, the stirred air from the fan.
It was an awkward place to have a conversation. You could talk through the flyscreen, but you had to talk to a face that was grey and fuzzy, like a film out of focus. Or you could both twist down sideways to talk through the small flap at counter-level, where you handed the money in and he handed you the wrapped-up meat.
I beg your pardon?
He put the knife down deliberately on the block, hooked the steel back on his belt as if sheathing a sword, came over to the gauze.
Ever tried the mutton?
He was close enough for her to see his eyes, dark in his smooth face, but she could not tell what sort of expression he had. She realised you could call this being inscrutable.
Oh, no, she said, No, I never have.
Somehow, she’d got the tone wrong. There was more regret in her voice than was warranted by not ever having tried the mutton.
She went on quickly to cover the sound of it.
Bit tough, isn’t it?
Too late, she heard how tactless that could sound.
She could feel a blush start in the small of her back.
Alfred Chang smoothed a large hand over his laminex counter and smiled down at it.
Up to the butcher, he said. Butcher it right, mutton’s sweet as a nut.
Now he was staring at her through the gauze.
Oh! she said. Yes! I suppose so!
She hated the way she kept on exclaiming and smiling, but did not know what she might do if she stopped. You could hide behind a smile and no one could blame you, or guess what you were thinking. She crinkled up her eyes to show what a lark it all was, but then she remembered that crinkling up your eyes gave you wrinkles.
No one, not even a Chinese butcher, would want her if she had wrinkles.
He had finished wrapping the chops now. She flinched as the hatch flipped up with a bang.
Here you are, Mrs Porcelline.
His eyes dwelt on her, and his voice did a sort of yearning thing. The fly-wire made it hard to be sure, but she thought it was possible that he winked.
The very best there is, Mrs Porcelline. For you.
He hung onto the parcel when she reached into the hatch for it, and for a moment they were joined by the little squashy packet of meat.
It was like holding hands, in a way.
They have a fascination for white women, she thought, and suppressed the thought.
Finally he let go of the packet and bent to get something from under the counter.
Was hoping you’d come in, Mrs Porcelline, he said in his languorous voice.
Been keeping this for you.
It was like a dirty secret when his big hand came out holding a brown paper bag towards her.
Oh! Really! What is it?
She heard her exclamations travel through the meaty air, filling the shop. She had a feeling she was shouting.
When she opened the bag, something cool rolled out against her hand and she gave a little cry of fright, snatching her hand back. The thing was cool and damp and bright red. She thought in shock that it was a tiny heart. They eat dog, she thought confusedly. Dog’s hearts.
She heard herself go Urgggh! It was the sort of noise her mother had made when taken by surprise. She had made it herself in the long-ago stale dusty playgrounds of childhood. Common. It was a noise she thought she had long since trained herself out of.
And she could see now that the thing was not dog’s heart at all. It was only a strawberry.
From my garden, the butcher said.
She hated the way she could not see him properly.
Picked them myself. Six o’clock this morning.
She smiled at the mesh, where he was a vague square dark shape.
Thank you so very much, she heard herself gush. They’re perfectly marvellous.
They were horrible. They were too big, too solid, too meaty looking. Fleshy, solid, like a heart. Revolting.
Ox-heart, the butcher said, and she was startled.
Pardon? I beg your pardon?
She wondered in panic if she had spoken aloud.
What they’re called, that kind, he said. Ox-heart.
She felt paralysed. He brought his head down to the flap, opened it, and inserted his big face sideways into it to look up at her, his eyes skewing sideways.
Ox-heart, he said clearly. Heart of ox.
His head stayed there, sideways in the hatch, watching. The hatch was just the size of his big cheese-coloured face. She put her own head sideways too. It seemed only polite. She felt her smile hang down on one side. She felt like a huge sparrow, head cocked on one side.
They’re so big! she exclaimed. They’re enormous! What enormous things!
She felt as if she had got the hang of the conversation now. They were strawberries. They were not dog’s hearts, but they were called ox-hearts. But her brain was going very slowly. She could not think of anything to say apart from talking about how big they were.
She held up one of the strawberries and turning it around and around. It was not really all that interesting.
How do you get them so big? I’ve never seen them so big! They’re incredible! So huge! Marvellous!
Suddenly she thought it sounded as if she was actually exclaiming over and over again at the huge and marvellous size of his – well – organ.
She felt herself starting to sweat.
She was certainly not thinking about his – well – organ.
And I’m sure they will taste just delicious!
She blushed more and longed for rescue.
She flung her husband into the breach.
Hugh will love them, she said. and so will William. They love strawberries.
The butcher’s large bland face did not move in the flap but his eyes blinked.
Oh, he said. But I picked them for you.
He was watching her, and she thought he was smiling, but with his face sideways it was hard to be sure. She wished the face would go away, the eyes stop looking at her. Smiling away hard, she thought of how she could jam her shopping bag up against the hatch. It would be right up against his face. It would be just the right size to block the face out completely.
Oh, but I’m allergic, you see, she said wildly. To strawberries.
She felt herself flood with heat. He was still just watching. It was as if he had unscrewed his head and wedged it in the hatch. The silence, with him watching, was unbearable.
Only strawberries, she shouted. Lucky really, nothing else. Just strawberries.
She went on piling words in front of his face. They bring me out in a rash. Well, a terrible rash, really. More like a … disease.
The word came out in a hiss.
She was thinking, Leprosy.
His face recoiled and disappeared from the hatch. She had not meant, of course, that Chinese people gave you leprosy.
Sort of a rough rash, she amended. Like pustules.
She had heard the word, but perhaps it was not quite what she meant. She had not exactly meant pus.
And itchy, she hurried on. Terribly itchy. Oh, you wouldn’t believe.
Behind the wire she could not see if he believed or not. The flap slapped down and she saw his large hands on the counter smoothing the white paper there, pressing down a dogeared corner.
Well, he said. I wouldn’t want to bring you out in a rash.
She could not see if he was smiling.
She heard herself giggle explosively.
No, she said, and could not think of what to say next.
I hope Mr Poreelline doesn’t come out in a rash too, he said. Or William.
Do they, Mrs Poreelline?
She rushed in.
Oh no! Mr Porcelline just loves strawberries! and so does William!
She hated the way he went on just standing, watching as she laboured to find more words.
She was still smiling hard when she left the shop, and she went on smiling until she was out of sight of his window. She could feel the cool damp weight of the strawberries through the paper of the bag. She went briskly along Parnassus Way holding them casually, smiling at old Mr Anderson standing in the doorway of the General Store across the road, calling hello, how ARE you, very warmly, to the mother from the school whose name she could never remember. She smiled and waved, and held the bag of strawberries as if they were the least significant thing in the world.
The thing was, Hugh would want to know where she had got them. It would seem a little odd, to tell him the butcher had given them to her. Why should the butcher give her strawberries? Why strawberries? Why her?
All things considered, it might be a bit awkward if he knew.
Taken all round, it might be better for the strawberries simply to disappear.
The best thing would be to burn the whole lot in the incinerator at home. They would make a bad smell, burning, but if she went home and did it quickly now, the smell would be gone by the time Hugh came home. She had got the knack of the incinerator now. You could be surprised, how often there was something that needed burning, what with one thing and another.
Hugh might smell the smoke in his office at the bank, but he would never guess that it was coming from his own backyard.
Burning was always the best idea. It tidied everything away marvellously. And ash could never create any kind of awkwardness.
“The Idea of Perfection warms both heart and head, for the bliss it affords is not so much visceral as aesthetic, even architectural.”
(Don Anderson, Australian Review of Books)
“It’s an outrageously entertaining book – witty, tender and full of no-nonsense lyricism.”
(Hepzibah Anderson, The Daily Mail)
“Grenville manufactures an extraordinary comedy of manners, made all the more powerful by her own reticence as a writer.”
(Alice Cartwright, The Guardian)
“Piquant and memorable.”
(Boyd Tonkin, The Independent)
“The Idea of Perfection is a very fine novel… Grenville’s paean to the heroism of imperfection could so easily slide into sentimentality. That it doesn’t is a testament to her skill. There’s nothing trite about the violent, sensual colour in her descriptions of the Australian bush, or her compassion for her eccentric characters.”
(James Eve, The Times)
“…the way the narrative coaxes these two awkward characters together is perfect in both its restraint and its careful observation of human frailty… as usual, Grenville’s prose is fluid and evocative, distinguished by precise, often haunting imagery… a beautifully crafted piece of work. This is wonderful writing made even more perfect by its deliberate and artful risks.”
(Mandy Sayer, The Bulletin)
“What remains unambiguous… is the magnitude of the talent at work and the depths of satisfaction is it capable of yielding. ..this is a novel that will have the kind of breadth of appeal that one associates with a writer like Annie Proulx.”
(Peter Craven, the Age )