Authors: Catherine Jinks
was born in Brisbane, Queensland, in 1963. She grew up in Papua New Guinea and later spent four years studying medieval history at the University of Sydney. She now lives in Leura, New South Wales, with her husband, Peter, and their daughter.
Catherine is the author of many children's and young adult books, as well as several novels for adults including
The Gentleman's Garden
The author would like to thank Trish Graham,
Andrew Hellen and Phillip Jinks for their help.
First published in 2004
Copyright Â© Catherine Jinks 2004
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The
Australian Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10% of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
Allen & Unwin
83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100
Fax: (61 2) 9906 2218
Email: [email protected]
National Library of Australia
Jinks, Catherine, 1963â.
ISBN 1 74114 155 9.
1. MarriageâFiction. I. Title.
Set in 11.5/14 pt Adobe Garamond by Midland Typesetters
Printed in Australia by McPherson's Printing Group
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
To Meredith Osborne
How did I ever get into this mess?
Look at me. Just look at me. I'm a walking disaster area. Check out the hands, for a startâyou get hands like this, when you have babies. They're in water all day long, what with the nappies and the spills and the bottles that have to be disinfected, so they crack up like dried-out creekbeds. Happens practically overnight. With the result that I'm a 38-year-old law graduate with the hands of a fifty-year-old hop-picker. A fifty-year-old
hop-picker. Count the bandaids. This one's so old, I can't remember why I put it on. I know why I haven't changed itâno timeâbut I can't remember why it's there. Number two is there because I'm ecologically responsible. I was washing the lid off a tin of stewed pears, in preparation for recycling, and gave myself the kind of gash you'd only reasonably expect to pick up after scaling a barbed-wire fence. (No more civic duty for yours truly. They can wash their own bloody tins.) Number three was Emily's fault: she dropped a glass. I picked up the pieces, put them in the kitchen tidy, forgot about them, and when I was trying to compress the rubbish by giving it a shove, so that I could insert just one more eggshell into itâ
! Of course, it's my fault that our garbage bins are always overflowing. I never seem to have time to empty them.
Number four is a particularly bad crack; it got infected. Number five is a fingernail repair. Half my fingernail was ripped off because I always let them grow too long (no time to cut them), and they get nicks in them, and then the nicks get snagged on woollen jumpers, and the nails get torn way down into the fleshy bits, and there's nothing much you can do about that except wrap a bandaid around the damage and wait for the nail to sort itself out. Either it grows or it sheds. Whatever it does, however, you know that the bandaid is going to be there for a good, long time. Weeks, usually. I've forgotten what my hands look like without bandaids on them. Just as I've forgotten what my clothes look like without stains on them.
This top, for instance. This top dates from my breastfeeding period. You can tell because it buttons down the front, and because it's covered in faint, yellowish marks that are either baby puke or breast milk. (They're the same thing, really.) If I'd tackled those stains early enough, I might have got rid of them with a paste made of powdered laundry detergent, but of course I wasn't up to it, in those days. I was so sleep-deprived that soaking clothes in a bucket of NapiSan was about as far as I could extend myself. Anyway, what would have been the point? Because this stain here is much more recent (chocolate biscuit fingerprints) and this one is too. Don't ask me what it is. A mystery stain. What's watery and greenish and ends up on your shoulder? I don't think I want to know.
Stains on the top. Stains on the shoes. Stains on the skirt, which has an elasticised waistband. Yesâan elasticised waistband. That's how low I've sunk. Or rather, that's how big I've got. I used to be size ten, before I had Emily. I used to wear natural fibres, and iron all my clothes, and shun things like track-pants and elasticised waistbands. I also used to wash my hair more than once a week. How the mighty have fallen!
You may wonder what stops me from washing my hair. Well, nothing reallyâexcept the fact that every time I step into the shower, despite all my attempts to bribe and distract, the kids start screaming in the kitchen. And I can't shower when they're asleep, because of the noise made by the plumbing. It's extraordinary, like the engine room of the Titanic; I don't know what it is about the pipes in this place. It's as if they're haunted. I've heard them grumbling and wheezing away at two o'clock in the morning. They're yet another aspect of this house that needs a complete overhaul.
But don't get me started on the house. If you want to talk about mess, here it isâmess central. Just cast your eyes over my domicile, will you? Note the layer of dust from the renovations, and the matching pile of builder's rubble outside the window. Note the sticky patches on the kitchen floor, the fingermarks at knee level, the biscuit crumbs, the cockroach traps, the soggy fragment of chewed Cruskit on top of the video player, the doll's house furniture and plush animals and frayed silk scarves and capless marking pens and bits of ribbon and Tonka trucks and broken Fisher-Price activity centres scattered all over every available surface. Note the big, nasty stain on the couch (blackcurrant juice), and the scribble on the wall. That was Jonah. I used to nag Emily about leaving the caps off her coloured markers, but I'm wiser now. After all, Jonah can't do much harm with a dried-out marker, can he?
Last, but not least, take a squiz at the refrigerator. I ought to get a biological hazard sign. The inside certainly wouldn't pass a health inspection; you can't pull the crisper drawer out because some kind of sticky brown paste has welded it to the white plastic surface beneath it. As for the outside, it's almost as bad as the inside, though in a different way. All those unsightly, reddish bills stuck up there, glowering at me. The letter from my cousin in England that's six months old and that I still haven't answered. The laughable builder's quotes. The reminder about the day care fete which utterly slipped my mind. The takeaway menus that are never used, these days, because we don't have the money to splurge on Thai food. The backcare health leaflet. (Don't ask.) The Tresillian Parents' Help Line number. The invitation to my twenty-year high school reunion.
I remember the ten-year reunion. At least, I remember
at the ten-year reunion. I had twenty thousand dollars in the bank, a great figure, a trendy haircut, an impressive and secure job, fantastic clothes and a phenomenally sexy boyfriend.
Now I'm overweight, in debt, dowdy and unshaven. My hair looks awful. I've got minced hands, a part-time job that I can't enjoy because I feel too guilty about it, and a husband who seems to be cheating on me.
So I repeat: how did I ever get into this mess?
It was Miriam who broke the news, needless to say. Miriam Coutts. She's Senior Manager of the Investigations unit at the Pacific Commercial Bank, and she's always had a nose for suspicious behaviour. That's why she does what she does. She started off as a branch teller, but was so successful at stopping frauds over the counter that the bank moved her to its Investigations unit, and had her chasing down credit card scams at the age of twenty-three. That was when I first met her. Since then she's taken over the unit, but she hasn't really changed much. She was always old at heart. Even when we were sharing a shabby terrace house in Paddington, and living on practically nothing, she had a managerial look about her. Very neat. Very organised. A routine for everything, and a file for everything else. That makes her sound deadly, I know, but she isn't. She has a very dry, very sharp sense of humour, and some interesting eccentricities: an addiction to Space Food Sticks, a taste for watching stock-car races, a collection of antique medicine bottles. She's also one of those people who don't age very much, for some reasonâperhaps because she has olive skin and a âthin' gene. Even her hair is the same as it always was, shiny and dark and cut in a pageboy style. Only the labels on her clothes are different.
She turned up this evening in a Carla Zampatti suit. She also wore shoes that matched her handbag, which was a kind of sage green. I remember when I used to wear sage-green shoes with my sage-green handbag. Or taupe shoes with my taupe handbag. Back in the Good Old Days, when Matthew admired me for my stylish wardrobe as well as my pert little bottom. (I seem to have lost both.) The last time I used my suede brush was to scrub dog shit off the soles of Emily's white sandals. I bet Miriam still employs her own suede brush to brush suede, and keeps it in a drawer along with the conditioning oil she still uses on her handbags.
Just listen to me, will you? I sound like such a whiny bitch. What does it matter that my shoes no longer match my handbags? I mean, how trivial is that for a goal in life? I have a beautiful family. I have a well-paid job that's an absolute breeze. I shouldn't be jealous of Miriam; she might be wearing âwarm hand wash only' garments these days, but her job's beginning to get her down, I can tell. She never used to complain about brainless senior management, or inadequate security measures. She never used to get irritable at the mere mention of her boss. I'm beginning to wonder if she's hit a glass ceilingâor if she's going to bail out, and try something different. I raised the subject, recently, and she flashed me a humourless smile. It wasn't so much the job, she said, it was the bankers. And where else would someone with her credentials find a job, except among bankers? It was an odd thing for her to say, I thought. It didn't sound like her, because she's never had a problem with bankers in the past. It made me realise how far we've drifted apart lately.
It's sad, when you consider how well we used to get on. We were on the same wavelength, once. She was from the south coast and I was from the North Shoreâshe had a mother and not much else, whereas I was well endowed with family, extended family, tertiary qualifications and a network of undemanding friendsâbut we shared a similar outlook nonetheless. For one thing, we were united against the other girl in our house, who was an airhead named Briony Crago. Miriam and I both saw eye to eye on things like wiping down the stove, paying the rent, and not distributing spare keys as freely and generously as promotional literature. Briony, on the other hand, was a great one for hauling strangers home from the pub, or leaving containers of taramasalata out for the cockroaches. It was hard not to regard her vision of the world as slightly skewed, because she would fuss over potpourri sachets for her underwear drawer while there was a sewage leak out near the clothesline. Miriam and I would laugh and grouse about this in equal measure. We would alert each other about sales at Grace Bros, and admire each other's taste in doona covers, foreign films and gourmet icecream. We were a team, in many ways. Comfortably equal. We went out together sometimes, and watched videos together sometimes. I suppose, at that point, she was my best friend. (I don't seem to have one, these days.) Certainly I knew her long before I knew Matthew. She was present on the occasion of my first meeting with Matt. She was also present at my hen's night, my wedding, and my only housewarming party.
Trust her to be on hand for the latest milestone event in my life.
She came this evening, at half past five. She always comes over here, because of the formidable logistics involved in my trying to get out of this place with two kids in tow. Having a good old heart-to-heart in a coffee shop, with Jonah squirming to get under the table and Emily spilling milkshake into your lap, is not really an option. Neither is her townhouse, which is full of so many steep little flights of stairs and challenging balconies that you might just as well drop Jonah on his head and be done with it. At least here we've got
videos and teddy bear biscuits. At least here I can plonk the kids on a rug in front of the TV, with individual portions of chocolate mousse and the bribe that Miriam has brought with her. She's such a wise, well-organised woman that she always brings a few bribes. Usually it's stuff from a two-dollar shop, like a plastic dinosaur and a set of fake fingernails, or a toy car and a miniature gardening setâ something like that. The kids love Miriam. They love it when Miriam visits, though she makes very little attempt to communicate with them. Not that I blame her, mind. She usually sees them when they're covered in mashed potato, and getting cranky after a long day. No-one's at their best in such circumstances.
âLook at this,' I said, as I gloomily surveyed my offspring stuffing themselves with sugar in front of the tube. âDo you know there's a mother from Jonah's playgroup who has three kids and
? No television. I don't see how it's possible.'
âOh, stop it,' said Miriam.
âNot only that, but she's a wholefood mother. Bulk lentils from the co-op. It's so depressing.'
âI bet she smells funny,' was Miriam's reply.
âThen the kids are monsters.'
âNot at all. Really caring and sharing. Really nice.'
âThey don't wear shoes, then.'
âYes, they do. Sandals, anyway. Mind you, her husband's a creep.'
âI mean, you wonder if the wholefood thing is entirely voluntary. On her part, that is. He's got all these theories about the way she should be washing the dishesâthat sort of thing.' I had to smile as I remembered. âWe only went over there once,' I went on, âand he sat talking about passive solar designs and composting toilets while she rushed around feeding everyone. God, he was awful. Hairy. Ginger hair.'
I should add that I hadn't gone to Mandy's house with Matt, but with a bunch of playgroup mothers. Because it was the middle of the day, we had all been very surprised to find Ginger at homeâa bit freaked out, in fact. Especially since Ginger had hijacked the conversation, asking each of us with a patronising, toothy smile about our domestic arrangements, and preventing us from settling down to a good moan about our kids and our husbands (one of the unexpected benefits of playgroup). We had been forced to do things like praise the bowel-cleansing powers of pumpkins, and condemn the appalling effects of television, while at the same time admittingâweaklyâthat we didn't have the strength to cut up whole Queensland blues
ban television from our homes. God, it was annoying. Especially since Mandy's kitchen was plastered with examples of her kids' astonishing artistic prowess, and heaped with produce from her vegetable garden.
Yes that's right. On top of everything else, she
grows her own
. I mentioned this to Miriam, who seemed unimpressed.
âMmm,' she mumbled. I glanced at her, then, and realised that this wasn't just going to be a catch-up session. She had something specific to sayâsomething about men. Whenever Miriam needs advice, whenever she loses control a little, it's invariably because of a man. In that respect, I was always slightly ahead of her. Sure, I've made some mistakes, but they were never as bad as Miriam's. I never went out with anyone who stole cheques from the back of my chequebook, or whose entire collection of literature had been lifted from public libraries, or who was busy stalking a past girlfriend while he was courting me. Miriam seems to be a magnet for people like that, whose failings aren't always immediately apparent. Oh, she's not stupid; she susses them out pretty fast. But she concedes that there must be some flaw in her genetic make-up which drives her to fall for them in the first placeâa kind of âbad boy' gene. She's a bit like me, I suppose. We're both good girls who find bad boys attractive, though my bad boys were never as bad as hers, thank God, perhaps because I could afford to pick and choose a bit. Miriam couldn't, as a rule. There were never many men interested in Miriam, I don't know why. Because she wasn't one to flaunt her bellybutton, or giggle a lot? Because she could often come across as rather formidable? The unhappy fact is, bad boys are usually lazy, despite their glamourâfar too lazy to tackle a challenge like Miriam.
Mind you, things have changed recently. She's been with Giles for eighteen months now, and so far it's been all seaside resorts and bagels for breakfast. That's one reason why I haven't seen much of her over the last year. It's the old story of the New Man not having much time for the Old Friend (especially the Old Friend who can't do brunch anywhere except at McDonald's). Besides, I don't like Giles. I've tried, God knows, because Miriam obviously thinks he's
, she can't stop talking about how brilliant and stylish he is, and she's rightâ he is. He's one of those top-notch money market guys, smart as a whip, slicked-back hair, marble jacuzzi, that sort of thing. With a goatee, just to show everyone that he's not your typical corporate animal. Obviously, Miriam feels that she's met her match at last. But I can't help wondering.
The first time I met him, at a family beach picnic, he spent most of his time talking to other people on his mobile, while the rest of us polished our fillings on chicken sandwiches full of wind-blown sand. I suppose it wasn't
fault that, after this first disastrous effort at socialising, he had me labelled as a complete bonehead. (It's hard to make coherent conversation when you're trying to keep an eye on two kidsâneither of whom can swimâin a beachfront setting.) But the second effort wasn't much better. After practically taking out a second mortgage on the house, Matt and I had hired a babysitter for three hours and joined Giles and Miriam for dinner in the city. A Big Deal for usâour first night out in something like fourteen months. Anyway, although it was a pretty flash restaurant, with pretty fancy food, Giles had found fault with everything from the poor mobile reception to the pedestrian wine list. Not that he wasn't an
whingerâyou couldn't help laughing when he compared his antipasto selection to something cleaned out of a badly maintained aquarium. But the way he talked, you found yourself wondering what he'd be saying about
the minute you turned your back.
He gave you the impression of a person who, though easily bored, was not easily impressed. Perhaps that's why Miriam behaved in a slightly uncharacteristic way when he was around; she's always been dry, but with him she was positively brittle. The two of them kept indulging in these witty, sophisticated exchanges about plastic surgery and tax havens and architect-designed beach houses. It made Matt and me feel like a pair of clodhopping preschoolers.
In other words, quite frankly, I think Giles is a bit of an arsehole.
Or maybe I'm just jealous, now that I'm not even ahead in the relationship stakes. I mean, I used to be the one who pulled the halfway decent men. It's petty, I know. It's unforgivable. It's a measure of the depths to which you can sink, when you're sleep-deprived. But I get so depressed when she starts talking about a peaceful stroll through the art gallery, followed by afternoon tea at Watson's Bay. The last time
were at Watson's Bay, Jonah dropped his chocolate ice-cream down the front of my white blouse, Emily trod dog poo all over the picnic rug, and Matt caught his hand in the stroller's fold-out mechanism. Par for the course, I'm afraidâthough I shouldn't complain, I know. After all, both my kids are healthy. And the trip wasn't a
disaster. It's a nice feeling, when you're sitting in the golden afternoon light, watching your gorgeous husband play with your chortling son, while your beaming daughter runs towards you with a blue-tipped feather in her hand. You learn to enjoy these heavenly Hollywood moments while you can, knowing full well that any moment your daughter's going to trip and fall, your son's going to cry for his mum, and your husband's going to get hit in the face by someone's Frisbee.
Oh dear, there I go again. Moan, moan, moanâit's a psychological tic. And what am I moaning about? The fact that I have a full, rich family life? Other people don't even have that. I feel so embarrassed sometimes, when I listen to some of the single mums at playgroup; it makes me realise how lucky I've been. (How lucky I
please God.) I've got to be more positiveâ more glass-half-fullish. It's that North Shore perfectionist coming out in me again. I've got to squash the tendency, it's like a weed. And of course it's made worse by the fact that I'm not even consistent. Because when I realised, this evening, that Miriam wanted to talk about Men, part of me (the bad part) was relieved at the possibility that she'd stuffed up yet again, while another part was appalled at the prospect of having to Give Counsel. Giving Counsel was always my role in these situations, but I don't have the energy any more. How can you display a boundless interest in every inflection of a man's voice, every enigmatic phone call he makes and statement he utters, when you know that with each tick of the clock you might be losing a heaven-sent opportunity to give the kitchen floor a quick mop before Jonah finishes his Vegemite sandwich and has to be coaxed into the bath?
If Matt had been available, I could have sympathised at my leisure. But Matt was on his evening shift. What's more, the dinnerâbathâbedtime routine was looming. I could see that if Giles proved to have a bloke on the side, or was living under a false name, or had ordered Miriam to shave off all her pubic hair, the kids wouldn't be getting to bed until after eight.
As it happened, however, I needn't have worried. Miriam was short, sharp and to the point.
âI'm sorry about this,' she declared, settling down in my grease-spattered kitchen with a frown on her face. There was a pause as she drummed her fingers on the tabletop. She seemed uncharacteristically tense. Almost jittery, in fact.
âI'm really sorry,' she continued, âbut after a lot of thought I've decided to tell you something that you're not going to like. Something that you're not going to thank me for. I was wondering what I should do, because it's difficult, but I've decided to bite the bullet. It's the best thing, I think, for both of us.'
I stared at her in astonishment, my mind racing and my cheeks reddening. I couldn't imagine what it was that she proposed to tell me. Did I have BO? Some kind of annoying mannerism? Was she going to take me to task about my negative attitude, or the weight I'd put on?
âIt's about Matt,' she said, and her fingers stopped moving. âMaybe I'm out of order hereâmaybe there's a perfectly reasonable explanationâbut I saw him in a restaurant at lunchtime, today, cuddling a girl who can't have been more than twenty-two.'
I just gaped at her.
âShe was snuggling into his neck, and he was kissing her hair. This was on Oxford Street, by the wayâthe Indigo cafÃ©, you know? I'd been at the courts.' Miriam sighed. âI saw them there once before, about three weeks ago, and he was holding her hand, but I thoughtâI mean, it could have been a secretary with AIDS, or something. I
a bit surprised, but I didn't like to overreact. Maybe I'm overreacting now. She had purple hair, and pale skin. One of those tattooed bracelets on her upper arm. A kind of orange chiffon singlet slung over a black T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. Three studs in her left ear. I couldn't see what she was wearing on her bottom halfâit was behind the table. I couldn't see her face very well, either.' Miriam cocked an eyebrow at me. âSound familiar?' she asked.
I shook my head, speechless. During the brief silence that followed, I could hear Sleeping Beauty singing âOnce Upon a Dream' in the next room.
âYou might end up hating me for this,' Miriam concluded, âbut in the end I felt that I couldn't walk away from it. Not with my background. I've had too much to do with guys who've gambled away all their money, and lost their jobs, and started juggling credit cards and signing away their houses and their wives haven't had a clue, though they must have sensed that something was going on. You've got to nip deceit in the bud, or it'll end up just the tip of the iceberg. Believe me. I've seen it. All these fraudulent lending managers who start off with a mistress on the sly and end up draining church bank accounts. It happens.'
âI know. I know.' She lifted a hand. âMatt isn't a thief. But if he turned out to be throwing away all your mortgage money on this . . . um . . . person, I'd never have forgiven myself if I hadn't told you. That's all.'
Tick, tick, tick. The kitchen clock ticked away. I checked the time automatically. Five to six.
âWhat time did you see him?' I asked. âIn the restaurant?' Normally, on a weekday, Matt leaves home around twelve, so that he can work for
. (He does sound mixing for a lot of ABC programs, including
, the news, and that arts one whose name always escapes me.) This means that he'll either grab a bite of lunch at home, before he leaves, or drop into a coffee shop on the wayâwhen we can afford it. That day, he had left a little early. I remembered the excuse that he had given: namely, lunch with his friend Ray. Ray was one of Matt's colleagues who had also become his friend. He was like a younger version of Matt, because they both enjoyed the same kinds of music, bars and television shows. Unfortunately, Ray had recently moved from the on-air mixing desk to postproduction, which offered its staff more sensible hoursâso Matt didn't see as much of him any more. Hence the need for lunch appointments. âMatt has to be at work at one,' I pointed out. âWhen did you see him? Exactly?'
âAbout half past twelve.'
âOh.' So that fitted. I scratched my arm, avoiding Miriam's eye. âI'll ask Matt,' I said, in a surprisingly calm voice. âThere must be an explanation.'
âI meanâwas he really cuddling her?'
âWell, he had an arm around her shoulders, and he was pulling her against him. And her face was buried in his neck.'
âAnd he was kissing her hair.'
âA couple of times.'
I swallowed. âAre you sure it was Matt?'
âDead certain,' Miriam replied, with a level gaze. I turned away from her. I couldn't think.
âMu-um!' Emily called from the living room. âI'm finished!'
âI'm finished, Mum!'
âAll right. Good girl.'
âI'm still hungry!'
âYou can have an apple.'
âOo-oh.' Whine, whine. âI want something else.'
âIt's nearly dinner. Just wait.'
âBut I'm hungry . . .'
, Emily!' I found myself rubbing my forehead with one finger as I lowered my voice. âHe has a cousin in Perth, but she's got multiple sclerosis. He has a bunch of sisters-in-law, but they're older than I am. He has a niece, but she's only twelve. This girlâare you sure she wasn't twelve?'
âI doubt it. I very much doubt it. Unless his niece has been on the streets for a while? Doing drugs?'
âNo,' I said, and realised that, in any case, Christine would never have allowed Sophie to dye her hair purple. Not in a million years. âBut there must be an explanation.'
âThere probably is.'
âI'll ask Matt.'
âThat's the best thing.'
Suddenly my daughter appeared. She came and swung on my chair.
I was grateful for the interruption.
âJonah made a mess,' she informed me.
âWhat are you cooking, Mum?'
âNothing, right now.'
âCan I have chips for dinner?'
âYou're having rice.'
âCan you put tomato sauce on it?'
âI'd better go,' Miriam announced, rising abruptly. âUnless you want me to stay. Do you? I'll stay if you want.'
I looked at her. She wore a grave expression, to match her sober suit. I wondered if I wanted her around. Probably not, I decided. It would be hard enough, feeding the kids while I digested this unwelcome news, without Miriam watching me burn the sausages.
She had never, I recalled, been all that enamoured of Matt. Not disapproving, exactlyâjust unconvinced.
âI'm really sorry, Helen,' she said, studying me intently. âAre you all right?'
âOh, yes. It's okay.'
âI feel awful about this. I didn't want to do it. I just felt I had to. Beforeâ' She stopped suddenly, and swallowed, glancing at Emily. Emily, of course, wasn't interested in the esoteric pronouncements of her elders. She was rearranging the fridge magnets. I could tell, however, that Miriam was trying to assemble cryptic phrases that wouldn't alarm my daughter. âBefore things get out of hand,' she finished.
âI know.' I didn't blame MiriamâI really didn't. She had always been a very loyal friend. âI'm glad you told me. Though I'm sure it's nothing.'
âI hope I haven't screwed up here. WellâI hope I have, of course. Made a mistake.' She gave a dismal little laugh. âThanks for not shooting the messenger. Are you sure you don't need anything?'
âI don't know . . . maybe Sara Lee chocolate ice-cream? I could go and buy some for you.'
âYes!' Emily exclaimed. Even I smiled at that. But I assured Miriam that I required nothing special, not even a cup of strong coffee. Then I said goodbye, and she told me she'd call me. She said she was sorry, and on the front doorstep she gave me a hug, holding me tight. I noticed at once that she was wearing perfume, but I didn't know what kind it was.
I've no idea what any of the new fragrances smell like, these days. I just haven't been keeping up.
So there I was, calmly putting the kids to bed while inside my head it was like that movie
, with thoughts and emotions careering around, tumbling, colliding and whirling away again. âBig Bear took Little Bear's hand,' I read, telling myself all the while that it must be a mistake. âFive little ducks went out one day,' I sang, as surges of panic made me break into a sweat. And Jonah was restless, of course, calling me back again and again, disturbing Emily, refusing to lie down. And you can't afford to lose your temper in these circumstances, or it's going to take the Problem Child even longer to settle.
As for Emily, she was so unbearably sweet that I nearly burst into tears. âI want to whisper in your ear,' she said, and when I leaned over she confided that she loved me, and daddy tooâ just like something out of a Disney movie. I needed a glass of wine, after that. (How do they always manage to hit you right where it hurts?)
I knew that it had to be a mistake. I knew that there had to be a reasonable explanation. But even so, deep down inside, a little kernel of doubt was starting to shoot. It had been sitting there in the dark, all these years, and it needed only the smallest gleam of lightâthe faintest trace of moistureâto encourage it to take root.
Right from the beginning
, you see, I had always had this . . . doubt. This tiny, unquenchable fear. Because the fact is, I had married a wild one.
Now I know it sounds phobic. I know that. But just consider the circumstances. Matt and I, we were a classic case of opposites attracting. Matthew was a tattooed, dope-smoking, shaggy-haired musician from Newcastle. I was a typical North Shore girl from Killara. God knows how many times I've tried to hide this factâespecially from myselfâbut whenever I used to visit my parents (before they moved), and went to buy brie at the local deli, I would look around at the sleek blonde Anglos, with their small ears and delicate gold jewellery and pastel sportswear, and I would know that I blended in there as I never will here, in Dulwich Hill. Dulwich Hill isn't an Anglo sort of place. You can always get decent baklava in Dulwich Hill, and the butchers stock interesting things like rabbits and sheep's heads. All of the doctors bulk-bill. If the churches aren't Greek Orthodox, they're holding services in Vietnamese. I'm not saying that I stick out like a shag on a rock, exactlyâI'm just saying that this isn't my natural milieu. It's an inescapable fact of life. I'm North Shore from pedicure to perm: my father was a lawyer, until he retired; my mother is, and always has been, a housewife. I went to a private school. I have a law degree from Sydney University. I simply can't pull off a grungy, gothic, feral or flamboyant look. I'm the sort of person, in other words, who looks hugely out of place in a bar in King's Cross.
That's where I was when I first met Matthewâin a bar in King's Cross. I was there by invitation because a friend of mine from school, who also lived in Paddington, was throwing a sort of postmodern hen's night. The idea was that we would go on a traditional hen's-night pub crawl, taking the piss out of the vulgarity of it all while secretly enjoying it at the same time. (The equivalent of having your cake and eating it too.) I should point out, here, that Caroline, the bride-to-be, was never a great friend of mine. We simply knew each other from school, and associated because we lived in the same street. Having studied at the Darlinghurst College of Art, she had become a graphic designer, though she's now living a luxurious life in the most exclusive part of Vaucluse with her (wait for it)
. Miriam had got to know her too, through me, so we were both invitedâprobably because Caroline wanted a crowd. I think it was a boost to her ego, having a lot of people following her around; at any rate, there must have been a good twenty women who turned up that night, and traipsed from one end of King's Cross to the otherâpast staggering junkies and touts and alcoholicsâlike a pack of sailors on the prowl.
I can't say that I enjoyed the concept very much. I'm not a big drinker, you see; I start to throw up after I've had a couple. As for Miriam, she doesn't drink alcohol at all. Consequently, when the other girls started to get pissed, and joined up with a mob of young lawyers and stockbrokers who were enjoying a buck's night (though not a postmodern one), Miriam and I bowed out. We withdrew from the fray, and went up to the bar. Which is where I got talking to Matthew.
He was working there, at the time. It was one of his many jobs. When I asked him for an orange juice I noticed that he had tatts on his arms, and a missing tooth, and dismissed him from my thoughts immediately. Not because I was a snob, you understand. It was simply because he obviously
in a bar in King's Cross, whereas I didn't. North is north and west is west and ne'er the twain shall meet, in other words. I had never sat on a motorbike before, and knew that I wasn't the sort of person who would ever feel comfortable doing so. Therefore, Matthew didn't recommend himself to me at first. It didn't even cross my mind that he'd be remotely interested in someone who didn't do drugs.
But when he brought me my juice and my change, he stopped to talk. He said that he had seen me on the premises before, trying to give some guy the brush-off. That's when I started paying attention, because it was true; I
been in there some weeks previously, with a nasty piece of work named Colin. Matt asked me if I had âgot rid of' Colin, and upon learning that I had, made approving noises. Colin, he said, had looked just like the bad guy from that movie
. Did I remember him? The corporate wanker with the blond hair? I replied that Matt was exhibiting the most extraordinary grasp of Colin's character, and we then started discussing movies, with particular reference to Tom Hanks and Ron Howard. Of course we kept on getting interruptedâMatt had a job to do, after allâbut even so, it soon became apparent to me that Matthew's rather aggressive appearance was totally misleading. Not that he looked like a gorilla, or anything. Don't get me wrong. He has a very nice face (what you can see of it, under the hair and stubble), and his eyes are lovely. But there were the tatts, and the missing tooth, and the easy familiarity with King's Cross slang . . . well, you know what I mean.
So we talked for a while, until I realised that Miriam was being increasingly left out of the conversation. Then, when she and I began to discuss whether we should walk home or get a cab (like we had a hope in hell of flagging down a cab in King's Cross on a Friday night), Matthew asked me for my number. Naturally, I didn't give it to him. I mean to say, a large, shaggy King's Cross bartender with tatts? You might as well walk naked down William Street and have done with it. But he insisted on giving me his number, and I took it without the slightest intention of ever using it. After which I went home with Miriam, to find that Briony was busily entertaining a total stranger who looked even larger and shaggier than Matthew.