by Pat Skinner, Winner of the 1995 Queer Lit Prize for Best Humorous Fiction
My maternal grandmother was always ready to hand out free advice to us kids as other grandmothers reputedly doled out Fantales and Minties from their bottomless handbags. 'Always wear clean underwear,' she'd tell us. 'And mind it's got no holes, in case you're in a traffic accident.' 'Always push back the cuticles on your fingernails so you can see the half-moons.' was another favourite, for granddaughters only. Apparently this would show young men that we took pride in our appearance.
But if any of us had conscientiously kept score of the number of times she had uttered each pearl of grandmotherly wisdom, the undisputed winner would surely have been that bane of school holidays and wet winter Saturdays: 'Never eat a choc-top in the dark.'
Picture it, can't you? Gran in her heathery tweed and tortoiseshell-framed spectacles at the local cinema with her six grandchildren in tow, the boys on her left, the girls on her right. All of us with clean underwear, all of us girls with cuticles well pushed back, all of us sitting up straight in our seats, no slouching! Each of us with a choc-top wrapped in plastic, not to be unwrapped, not a single nibble taken, not a single lick to test the flavour until Gran had produced a stack of large men's handkerchiefs from the depths of her bag and passed them out on either side with instructions to tuck the corners securely inside the necks of our shirts or jumpers. The unlucky boy and girl sitting next to her had this vital procedure performed for them. Then it was a mad rush to gobble down the ice-cream before the lights went out and Gran had a chance to call out 'Quick! Down the hatch or the Movie Monster'll do it for you!'
This ritual may have saved our clothes, but it did nothing for our choc-top eating techniques or our confidence in public places, and when we had graduated from Gran and her checked men's hankies, we all took great care to consume our choc-tops in well-lit cinema foyers on the pretext that we were starving, or break the all-time speed-eating record during the ads if we happened to arrive a bit late. The idea of simply not buying choc-tops would never have occurred to us. Choc-tops are as essential to the cultured Aussie movie experience as meat pies and Fosters are to the macho Aussie footy match experience.
One thing my Gran never taught me was that if you're going to the movies with someone you're really trying to impress, a really hot date, then you should try to see the movie beforehand, so that if your mind should by chance wander away from the on-screen exploits of Sigourney Weaver and settle down to concentrate intensely on the exquisite bow-shape of your date's mouth, or the incredible length of her eyelashes when seen in profile, you'll still be able to participate intelligently in post-movie discussions about character motivation and in-depth analysis of the art direction and sound editing.
I learned this little strategy after several rather embarrassing post-movie coffee sessions - during one, as I recall, I had to confess that I didn't remember any of the plot after the first five minutes and couldn't comment on whether the sex scenes were relevant to the exposition, as I'd been too preoccupied with visualising my own expository sex scene. Fortunately my date had a good sense of humour, and the resultant expository sex scene back at her flat was quite - but that's another story.
This story is really about my first big date with Kelly, whom I'd met during a series of lectures at the WEA on Women in the Workplace. Kelly was the lecturer, and I'd so admired her acidic commentary on the corporate buzzwords invented by male managers to fool the rest of the workers into thinking that there was some real substance behind their Armani suits that I'd approached her at the end of the lecture and told her so. That led to coffee at Alexander's and that led to her suggestion that we go to a movie or something as soon as the lecture series was over.
'Sure, that'd be great,' I said, trying to sound cool and nonchalant, and hoping my hands wouldn't suddenly lose control of themselves and reach out to tousle her wonderful curly hair. Fortunately, they behaved themselves, influenced, no doubt, by the well pushed-back cuticles.
So, three nights after the last lecture, we met at the Dendy to see Amateur. It was Kelly's choice. I didn't let on I'd seen it at the Film Festival, just said, 'Oh yes, Hal Hartley's films are so intelligent, and it's always a treat to see Isabelle Huppert'. For a fleeting, almost panic-stricken moment, I wondered if she'd really prefer Martin Donovan, but I put it down to my usual 'What-if-she's-not-really-gay-and-I-picked-up-the-wrong-signals?' paranoia.
Kelly arrived a fashionable five minutes later than our arranged meeting time. I'd decided not to buy my choc-top until she was really there - didn't want to look like a half-starved pig chomping away when she walked in. I'd taken great care with my appearance, right down to my best, never-worn-before Kayser Perfects black cotton'n'lace knickers and matching bra. In pristine condition, in case - well, you know what city traffic's like on Thursday nights.
Kelly arrived, elegant in a black suit with plum silk shirt. We bought our tickets, I bought a choc-top, she bought an orange juice and took out a Cherry Ripe once we were inside. We made a little small talk, we watched the few ads, I started on my choc-top, and then - the lights went out.
In my eagerness or nervousness or whatever, I'd completely forgotten that at the Dendy you don't get twenty minutes of meaningless drivel which claims to advertise designer drinks or city eateries or theme parks (all the same thing, really). The Dendy is vastly superior to Hoyts and Greater Union in this respect, but it does present a huge problem for clumsy choc-top addicts.
I lifted the cellophane wrapper to the level of my chin and tried to use it as a serviette. I focussed one eye on the trailers and the other on my choc-top - an exceedingly difficult manoeuvre, don't ever try it without adequate adult supervision - and took tiny bites at regular intervals around the edge, hoping I'd at least have finished the coating before the feature began.
After about a minute I thought I was succeeding. I poked tentatively at the top of the cone and decided I'd just about made it. Kelly was watching the trailer for The Secret of Roan Inish, completely oblivious to my predicament. I breathed a sigh of relief and took what I hoped would be my last bite of the chocolate coating.
'Oh damn!' I exclaimed, as the last piece missed my mouth completely and slid down to regions unknown and dangerous, that is, unknown by Kelly and somewhere between my stomach and the top of my thighs.
'What's the matter?' whispered Kelly.
'Oh - er - nothing.' I felt around gingerly with the hand that wasn't holding the ice-cream.
'Oh well, I thought, better come clean - oops, bad choice of words there, I mean confess - she was bound to notice if I left the cinema afterwards with a sizeable smear of chocolate on my sweater or trousers. 'I dropped a piece of choc-top somewhere.'
'Oh no!' she sounded sympathetic. 'That's happened to me so many times - I usually eat them in the foyer if I've got time. Let me have a look.'
'I can't find it,' I said. 'Don't worry, I'll stand up and shake it off.'
'No, let me. I've got great vision in the dark.'
Before I could object (not that I really wanted to), she had leaned over and was feeling around about three inches away from a part of my anatomy which I usually don't allow to be explored in a nearly-full cinema. I wondered if holding my breath would prevent me from making a sound which has been compared to a cat on heat. I held my breath.
'Here it is!' Kelly held up the culprit. I hoped my escalating body temperature hadn't melted it too much.
'Open wide' she whispered. I opened my mouth - more in amazement than obedience - but I hadn't let my breath out first, and nearly choked as a result.
Kelly handed me her juice. 'Here, take a sip of this.'
'Thanks,' I whispered, taking a gulp and passing it back. I fumbled for a handkerchief. 'Probably got chocolate all over my face too.'
'Oh let me,' she whispered again.
'Ssh!' hissed two people in the row behind.
Kelly ignored them and leaned over again, turning my face towards her and kissing me very gently on the lips.
'Hmm,' she whispered, drawing away a little. 'A slight chocolatey taste. Better do it again.' She did.
Then, as she started to settle back in her seat (by then the credits for Amateur had started) she managed - not entirely by accident, I'm sure - to catch the chain of her watch on the edge of my marcasite art-deco bathing beauty brooch.
'Oh God!' She started to laugh.
'Sshh!!' hissed the rows in front and behind.
So there we were, elegant Kelly with her right hand resting against my left cashmere-clad breast, giving it the lightest of squeezes, and certainly noticing how wildly my heart was thumping.
I managed to disentangle her by undoing my brooch and taking it off. Kelly then took off her watch and we wisely decided to wait until after the movie before separating our jewellery.
Martin Donovan was looking bewildered in a back street paved with cobblestones. After that the film was a complete blur, and I thanked my lucky stars I'd seen it already.
The final credits rolled, the house lights blinked on and I returned to the Dendy from a very pleasant fantasy about - well, you can imagine. I turned my attention to the watch and brooch. Finicky work, but I managed to prise them apart without damaging either. I pinned the brooch back on.
'You have lovely hands,' said Kelly, brushing one of hers across mine. 'I noticed the little half-moons when we had coffee that time. They're very cute. Cute cuticles.'
If anyone else had said that, I'd have considered decking her or him. Cute is not a word that applies to me. But I was too far gone by then, and I simply smiled and reached over to help Kelly put her watch back on.
'Would you - would you like to come back to my place for coffee?' she asked. There was a slight catch in her voice and I realised she was probably as nervous as I'd been earlier. 'I'd love to discuss the movie with you, see what you thought.'
'That'd be nice,' I answered. 'You're right, there's lots to talk about, and you can barely hear yourself think in the inner-city cafes.'
So here I am sitting next to Kelly again, this time in the back seat of a taxi, travelling towards her flat in Rozelle. I'm wondering if the elderly driver will notice in his rear-view mirror if I sort of casually take Kelly's hand, and if he'll tell us there's to be no hanky-panky in his cab, thank you very much, young ladies!
I'm wondering what Kelly's flat will be like, if she's decorated in modern, or Eastern, or minimalist or country-style. I'm wondering what she'll be like, and if she'll like my Kayser Perfects underwear. I'm wondering what my Gran would think.
Well Gran, I hope you're not too upset with me. You can pass me on underwear and cuticles. Pity about the choc-top, but hey, two out of three ain't bad!
In the mid-1990s a group shared their experiences at Ten Forty dinner and discussion evenings. Their stories were recorded on tape and now we've made them into a podcast.
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