Sound the alarm

by Sally Breen

THERE'S THE TUG of it in her stomach, always, a heavy thing. Sarah's hot, clammy like she knows she shouldn't be on a day like this – nearly forty years old and yet every month the worry like something the hormones make you forget – the reason she'd snapped at Kieran yesterday, why she'd thrashed out this morning with the iron cord stuck round the back of the cupboard door on the walk-in where she plugs it when she has to iron something not done in time by the woman she pays to do the ironing and she'd whipped the cord out of the wall and shook it and said fucking hell, shit fucking cunt of a thing. It was just a cord. A cord. She wonders if men remember something of the moment they make a baby. If they can feel it. She asks that sometimes. Did you feel me? When it's real.

God she's hot. Her breasts feel full in her bra. Nicely, but too sore to be useful. There's the nagging pain in her gut. I must be, she thinks, but maybe not. She's checked the toilet paper five times already this morning, checked her underpants the same, each pulling down denied, the baleful look, each wipe, eyes closed and then opening like a prayer. Still nothing. This has happened before. Surely it should explain the aggression. Maybe not. Every month for nearly thirty years and nothing's changed – just a bitch twenty-four seven, seven days, three sixty-five.

Sarah remembers how her mother hadn't wanted her to use tampons the first time. Like the stick of soft cotton up there would take her virginity. But she'd stuck a lot of harder items inside her by then – pencils – resting in the folds of her cunt while she did her homework. Once a banana which hadn't survived, the end of a hairbrush. You're still only ever really taken when you are. Bastards.

More chemists. Looks when you buy the test. Suggestions when you buy the pill. Aversion when you get the morning after wonder drug. Sarah's never understood why they take your name and address as a condition of selling it to you – like Australia has some kind of giant slut register, and everyone knows how many times you're on it. She's started giving false names. Don't screw up like last time, caught looking at the Gucci sunglasses and not realising the woman was referring to you when calling out the name of your best friend – Clare, Clare, three times until you looked up. Fuck. Commercial radio is pissing her off. Going on and on about some b-grade celebrity who's backhanded them in a tweet. Shrieking women and drunk uncles. Idiots everywhere and Sarah at fifty-five minutes to nine Wednesday morning, seven days overdue and approximately thirteen thousand five hundred and five days too old for this god damn shit.

Spastic toilets are handy – more privacy, more space – easier to navigate the door frame with all the crap she seems to drag around with her, dual aspect handbags, coffee, keys, the wrapped up packet. Peeing wondering about the purpose of Lionel Richie muzak. One blue line. And then two. Definitely two. Read the packet again. Rest the packet against the basin with the test parallel to the box to check the second blue line is not some anomaly of design. This is not confusing. Think of Kieran, Sarah. Think of two little hands, a face, Kieran's head, walking down the hallway pregnant. Nine lives. The meeting with the client in less than thirteen minutes and you still have to check the print on the contract document because Michael never bothers to. The tiles are cool. Don't look at your face. The photo thirty-nine years ago of your father and you sleeping. He still had his business shirt on, probably passed out, and your little blonde head sticking up out of the doona. Little hands. A face. Your phone vibrating in your bag twice. Probably Kaitlin wondering where you are. Or one of your four hundred and ninety five friends too many posting status and no one you want to call. There is nothing doing. This is big information. Deal with the information tonight.

SARAH LOOKS AT the muffins on the silver tray, centre of the table; fluffy and warm; rich and bad for you; four of the easiest things to sell in the world. She tries to tune out Michael but after all this time it's impossible; she knows the routine too well. Same copy, same cast, same outcome. Michael going in for the kill always the same way and on this Thursday morning at exactly 9.42 am and seven seconds (his board room performance, something she'd once considered finely tuned, exemplary) has finally become tiring and Sarah realises, resisting the easy allure of the blueberry, that she has gotten old, over a seventeen-year period right here in this room. When she was twenty-six – when she was still hungry – Michael's combination of flair and murderous instinct had seemed charming, brutal, a method to aspire to – a capacity for conjecture she now finds suddenly dull but still so undeniably effective. The client, blue chip, is buying it. She can tell from the way their eyes barely leave his face – won't leave him until the ad plays. This is the warm up – the flex. Before the final bite.

This is how they have defined each other, she thinks, her and Michael – this is what has defined the competition between them and the other agencies. The ability to convince. Not beyond reasonable doubt or desire but beyond any rational thought or reason. Michael thinks what he does is package. Realign. Reconfigure false experiences into purchases, explainable entrées, especially in a charming way on TV, on talkshows with just the right amount of chest hair showing because the figures prove it, when something sells the numbers tell the only story anyone ever really wants to know. Graphs. Peaks. Lines in the sand. But things have started selling in ways no one really gets and Sarah knows this unnerves Michael, as it should all these creatives, sitting here in this glass-walled open office like they really matter.

Sarah wonders who did the colourful and very digi graphs for him. Someone younger, Sahara certainly, or was it Madison? All these girls with names like geographical formations or seasons or famous streets as if their parents were trying to conjure a future big enough for their expectations of them, the just right girls, the gold medal winners, the award-winning juniors (though they don't call them that anymore, Sarah has to remind herself, they are project officers, client liaison, associate execs – a generation not designed to assist) kids, so green and so hovered over and so very, very hungry.

Sarah looks at Sahara tweaking things on the laptop underneath Michael's left wing stoking the fire, even though the flow through on the presentation is already set, caressing the keys with an earnest expression which makes her look indispensible in a quiet way. Useful. Because she'd rather look at the screen than have to look up. A predilection Sarah notices all the young execs have perfected, a kind of relaxed but also somehow wary, attentive lean into the technology, as if the answers to all things or at least the god of something is in there in the screen – their unaffected manner giving off the impression they'll easily be able to feign disappointment if things don't turn out that way. That look. Sarah wishes she never had to witness such puerile posturing. There was no guts in it. First whiff of a larger hunter and every one of them, including Sahara, would be gone.

What her and Michael do, it seems to her now, reaching into the middle of the table for the muffin, was convincing yourself the finer points of sale were something you had control over. It was fine for a while but the finer points of sale were always just the same.

They were the same when her dad sold buttons out the back of a brown station wagon doing the rep run for the company up the old New England highway, shagging the willowy woman in the haberdashery shop not realising she was married to the town cop. The stuff of bad American movies certainly, but it had been what had happened. Sarah imagines the reel music might not have been as comforting or as reassuring as she imagines when the husband turned up at the motel door. Less romantic than the agency would have shot it certainly, with a faded sepia wash which always made your ordinary grade nostalgia look like something stylish.

The finer points of sale were the same when Old Jack had walked in six years ago before her and Michael had bought in and fired four copywriters because of the pressure upstairs not knowing how to solve anything in a new climate. And the interns she remembers had just sat there. Not sure. Loyal only as long as they were safe. Casting glances, for another sponsor. Hungry. But in the end the interns had gone too. Kicked out after six months, maybe more, of hard time with a nice reference and a pat on the arse at the 'fare-you-well drinks' gone home to the suburbs, to mum and dad or their little flats convincing themselves and maybe their parents and maybe their partners that they were making it.

Michael turns to a new page.

Sarah still refers to screens as pages and maybe that's part of her problem. She can't get excited about change. Change is not hard-wired into her and she's getting bitter. She can feel it – a tightness in the skin around her jaw – in her cheeks – the will to be gracious to every idiot with a cute idea has fallen off her like any sense of comfortable, knowable gravity does and now she's left with just this sallow expression as if her face can't ever again be encouraged to lift. The haunted look of a late thirties woman realising she no longer cares. No longer cares if Michael gets a hard-on at the end of his speech today – if this close means a night on the rocks, if this close means a night out on the company books that the company can't really afford, not like they used to anyway. Fifty-two per cent hers and losing traction at a reckless speed. Fuck the company.

She almost says it out loud.

When had this happened? Was there a moment she could isolate the point she stopped caring about the gap between the red lines and the black? Whether she resisted the muffins, why she was always thinking somewhere in the back of her head about fat – why was she always living her life like a silk gloss print in a Vogue magazine that she made happen, that she had sold to.

Until of course she wasn't. Until of course four bottles of wine in and a baked blue with her shoes off was a consolation or calls to the girls or a drunken spat with Kieran was her only outlet and screw Sahara or whatever her name was with her belt round her so tight and high on the waist – she hates how these girls show off – she never has done, not even in her twenties when the possibility might have taken her or even had an effect – a sense of external purpose always more her style. Why did everything have to be so tight? Why did girls start wearing tops to the office with no backs in them? With their tits just hanging there. No wonder Michael is a fucking mess in the new millennium. Too much hard nipple visible throughout the day.

But here he is still going on with his finer points.

And his fastidiously tuned presentation that eight years ago he wouldn't have had the faintest idea how to work. Or how it worked. Now the graphics move across the screen as if he's commanding them to do so and not Sahara under his heavy feather. Yesterday in motion. Over and over again. Selling and never inventing for a company that in seventeen years had never managed to work out how to provide people with a decent fucking coffee? The goddamn pod machines were useless. George Clooney does not help. Real coffee takes something else. A hand, a touch, a presence. Being real takes care and thinking about what is actually happening to you in the course of a day, over the course of seventeen years in an ergonomic chair, is hopeless.

Michael is going to sale this account and everyone will think they have won a small corner of the world and later in the bar people will say, half serious, which one in Mad Men are you? And Michael, fuck him, will wait, she will see him wait, like she has for five seasons – until one of the interns comes right out with it and says, 'But, of course, Michael what no one's saying is that you're Don, my god you are most definitely Don – I mean, not like I mean, I don't mean you're like him like that, you know (slurping on the drink now, uninhibited) – like a bastard and everything but you're like the killer, you're the killer, you rock.'

And Sarah will look at the girl and think, poor cherub. Poor well meaning cherub in a box, like a fresh macaroon all festooned with tight lime ribbon. And everyone else who's been there long enough to know better will snicker into their espresso martinis or whatever the hell they drink very ungraciously but the intern will be right – like they sometimes are in their innocent pop fucked way, Michael is exactly like Don Draper. He's an outright son of a bitch and so charming no one has actually realised it yet, not for seventeen years and this is what the new girls never realise, what no one ever will, what Sarah has never wanted to admit – Michael is no longer real, there will be no denouement; no coda; this is how he will organise it; anyone who has realised his falsity has ceased to matter, anyone who can realise it, has chosen, like Sarah for seventeen years, not to disturb the order, the spin.

Sarah eats the last berry, supernova blue, leaves all the electronic devices attached to her in a neat row on the desk, unhooks the lanyard with the plain white plastic card access all areas and places it on top. She does not look at Michael, sliding her chair back slowly, quietly along the pale blond organic bamboo flooring – her choice and the right one. She can hear him faltering. Stumbling on his lines. Dying on stage. Trapped. Sahara's fingers freeze on the keys, the image on the screen freezes. She looks at Sarah. Everyone looks.

'What are you doing?' Michael asks, 'Are you alright? Sarah?'

Sarah looks at him – behind the feigned concern, she can read the fear. The dropped ball. She doesn't say anything. She doesn't have to. Fifty-two per cent is always so much bigger than forty-eight.

SARAH DOESN'T WANT to arrive but the ride home is quicker, everyone knows that. She doesn't want to hit the sensor on the house or herself. The first thing she sees gliding the Audi inside the four-bay garage are the empty spaces either side as if Kieran is willing the need for further vehicles, more people, children grown and still at home, cars they can't afford and can't really drive all that well parked parallel. The family. Two hetero parents and 2.4 kids though Sarah knows the average amount of kids in an average Australian family is now 1.8 and that families are no longer necessarily straight or nuclear. The figures that live in her, that can shift over generations or in minutes are trained to erupt without command – all the minute measurable details of how people live changing gradually or in an instant. Sarah knows this; that a product can die overnight or over a lifetime. How a movie about a talking pig can affect bacon sales for a year. How the staple idea of meat and three veg migrates somehow into Masterchef. How the words organic, Apps, sugar-free and 'D'oh' make it onto the sides of products and sometimes even the dictionary. These erupting and sometimes unfathomable associations have defined her life.

Sarah imagines what 1.8 looks like: one kid whole, one kid missing something crucial – an arm, a leg, a head. She grips the soft pale grey leather of the steering wheel. The notion of family for Sarah either a nuclear flash point (something momentous dropped on you from a great height) or a slow, gradual annihilation. The Audi hums to a halt, ticks softly into silence. Sarah can feel her blood moving around her body like it doesn't usually, a rollercoaster coil pumping up and over her diaphragm swirling into her gut, her lower abdomen. Even her clit feels heavier, bigger, pulsing with some other need much stronger than desire. She doesn't like it. This thickening of herself. She sits in the car, hands folded neatly in her lap, imagines the lip of her tummy over the top of her right hand. She feels sick but knows the water crackers stashed in her bag won't help. The sickness she feels right now is not biological it is seeing yourself inside your own house, having the conversation going on in your body with the person you live with, the bi-fold walls breathing, the whole magnificent stretch of the rest of your days caught in the prospect of 1.8, 2.4, 3.2, 4.5, building up as you continue to recede in the wide-eyed view of a proud dad, a fuller house, a packed garage and a neglected dog. Sarah looks at the door leading to the hall running down to Kieran and this night. She makes the small necessary movements required to go inside.

Kieran is standing at the island bench in the kitchen with his back to her, chopping, and though he's heard her heels clicking across the parquet floors his head inclines only slightly as he says hello, reaching for the glass of red in front of him. Sarah, noticing he's three quarters of a bottle down, dumps her bag and keys on one of the high chairs lining the bench, draws out another for herself. Kieran is playing music, soft and not the kind she likes, a new indie act, some uptight woman wailing and so affected it sounds like a small thing is dying somewhere off in the middle distance. Onion and garlic sear wild in the pan. Kieran fiddles with the wooden spoon and she can tell by his short, measured movements, the tight curl of his back, that he's unhappy in a general way and she's the cause of it.

'I'm pregnant.'

Kieran stops stirring, the lip of the spoon resting in the sizzle but he doesn't look around to see Sarah sitting there un-distracted, glassless, her hands folded together on the stainless steel – the wrong choice she knows now, every fingerprint leaves a trace. Sarah pushes her ring finger down, lifts, her print stuck there and a hot haze around it like breath fading on a cold glass. First you love something, she thinks, then it becomes something else you have to clean.

'Is it mine?' Sarah doesn't answer so Kieran lifts the pan off the heat and turns slowly to face her. This is how they've been since last month, no understatement or nothing at all. Sarah knows after what's happened on the island it's a fair question. When she'd returned and Kieran had found the messages – strings of them in her phone, between her and Michael. Some of them business, most of them not; Kieran waking her in the middle of the night standing over her not as angry as he should have been, her phone limp in his hand. By morning they'd talked in semi-circles but nothing could undo the facts: that she and Michael had fucked several times while away on that trip, that they'd liked it enough to joke about it in text messages, that Sarah had lied to Kieran was now something that could not be undone. Kieran had let her stay and she'd watched him spend the last four weeks trying to ward off recognition of everything he didn't want to know – that Sarah had been doing exactly that kind of lying to him for years.

Kieran is looking at her now, his eyes set the same way as they have been since the night he'd stood by the bed waking her possibly for the first time without touch, the same distaste and the same deep, unmitigated hurt making his usually handsome face lose all its grip. His movements slower, more pissed off and deliberate but Kieran, usually so steadfast looks to Sarah now about as stable as a wind-flogged ocean. She looks away, hands splayed out on the steel bench in resignation or failure, she's not sure which.

'Yes,' she says and before Kieran can protest, 'Michael's had a vasectomy.'

Kieran's laugh is shallow, frosty. He takes a slow slug of his wine. 'Of course he has,' and Sarah doesn't react, knowing in a bright blue second this will be one of the last times she will sit in this chair, walk into this beautiful house, have a conversation about the expectations Kieran has of her that she has never really wanted to fulfil and this day rolling out and proving to be momentous will be the one where things will not change or calm down, or move forward; this will not be a day when they will make concessions for each other, accept how different they've been for years, trying to talk away the idea that the actual thought of each other is no longer attractive or even amusing or even an excuse and Sarah realises she is going to leave Kieran. Leave Michael. This tired country. The possibility of this new life inside her. She is going to leave them all.

From Griffith REVIEW Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.