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Emma chewed listlessly on an eclair.
"You look tired," Kathy said.
"Not tired, sandblasted. Alice invited Maryanna to her dinner party last night. The other five of us got to say about three words between us."
"I thought Maryanna was nice," Kathy said.
"She is. In small doses."
"What was she on about this time?" Sue asked.
"The usual. Fixing up the world. Every problem has its solution, and Maryanna knows just what it is. If the kids are homeless, then chuck the pollies on to the streets. If the air’s polluted, ban the cars and build tramlines to every suburb. If the trees don’t regrow, chop the loggers off at the knees with their own chainsaws.
"I sort of like most of them, but if you suggest a few improvements, to ... well ... make them practical, she puts on that suprised and disappointed look, and then barges straight on.
"And afterwards, she’ll say to someone, pityingly, ‘Emma’s really very conservative, you know.’"
She paused to draw breath, paused some more, and then laughed. "Sorry, I’m talking like Maryanna."
"Should we buy her a chess clock?" Sue asked. "Start it going when she opens her mouth, and when it runs out, she’s got to shut up for the rest of the night."
Emma sighed. "It would’t work. Maryanna solutions aren’t applicable to Maryanna." She put her eclair down, half-eaten, and stirred a very black black coffee.
"Are you coming to see Petra’s new house?" Sue asked.
"She hasn’t bought it!" Kathy said.
"Not yet. But why shouldn’t she? It’s a good buy."
"It’s downwind from a genetic engineering factory."
They took Kathy’s car, its rust plus protest sticker amalgam a defiance of planned obsolescence, and its exhaust a bold attempt to force action on the greenhouse effect by bringing it on single-handedly. Instead of the Estate Agents’ route through quiet leafy streets, past schools and shops, she took them a block away, past the car yards, scrap yards and furniture factories, until the buildings opened out onto an idyllic rural scene, surrounded by barbed wire.
Set well back from the road was a grey lump of a building in a ring of bare earth. By the gatehouse, was a noisy demonstration.
"Yuk," Sue said. She thought for a moment. "Though they’re an improvement on mobs at the place the Petra looked at next to the football ground."
"Is that Maryanna?" Kathy asked, gesturing towards a figure in overalls shouting through a megaphone.
"Sorry. I was wrong," Sue said.
A girl in the crowd saw Kathy’s adornments and waved to them to show them where to park.
"We’d better stop," Emma said. "After last night, I think I’m supposed to know about this. If Maryanna finds out we went straight past, bang goes any pretence that we’re not troglodites."
They parked the car and edged close to the crowd. There would have been twenty or thirty people, uniformly dressed in jeans and coloured shirts. A snatch of "Clone on the Range" and the chant of "Come Out Dr Frankenstein" were drowned out by the screams of their offspring as they reestablished their pecking-order in a new environment. And over the top, Maryanna’s megaphone boomed away.
"Look at the grass," she was saying.
"It’s not grass, it’s clover," Sue said.
Emma bent down and picked a head. "Four leafed."
"That’s lucky." Sue knelt. "So’s this one."
"They all are," Kathy said. "And that’s not lucky. And did you hear about the three metre yapless dachshund that got out?"
"Some stupid cleaner left the door open, didn’t they?" Sue said.
"Because the warning signs were in English and Japanese."
"That sounds like a Maryanna story," Sue said. "Who would want to breed a three metre dachshund?"
"Arms traders use them to hide scud missiles," Kathy said.
Maryanna was pointing to an air-conditioning duct. "... venting malignant mutated viral genotypes that are raging uncontrollably in our fragile environment." She stabbed her arm towards the ground. "Why is that earth bare ...?"
"If she believed all that, she’d be miles away," Sue said.
"They say that it is safe. That it meets International Standards," Maryanna boomed. "What International Standards? The Chernobyl Containment Standard. The Pentagon Biological Warfare Standard of 33 gigamutations per square centimetre? There are no standards, and if there were, could we trust them?"
"She’s got a point," Kathy said. "They had a picture of their control room on TV a couple of weeks ago. Fifty three thousand dials and gauges, monitoring everything, alarms making more noise than those kids, people fiddling, fiddling, fiddling. It’s got to go wrong."
"It hasn’t so far," Sue said.
"We hope," Emma said.
"I still think Petra’s stupid to live here," Kathy said.
Emma looked at her watch. "We’ve done our duty, I think. Time to go."
Kathy drove them around the block. The house looked nice from the street — old, big, rambling and a bit run-down, with lots of trees. Petra’s sort of place.
But as they pulled into the driveway, Petra came storming out, hair and breasts flying. "The deal’s off," she said, teeth clenched. "There’s rats under the house."
"A good pest exterminator will fix that," Sue said.
Petra snarled. "They were playing strip poker with a psychologist," she said.
Copyright © D.W. Walker, 1991
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