It was bad idea right from the outset. We never did anything as a family, so a Father’s Day fishing competition wouldn’t be any different. Freddy, my three-year-old brother, begged our father to take him but Dad wasn’t about to forgo his regular drinking session at the pub. Mum argued with him and I got involved by insisting that all the other kids’ dads were going. Voices were raised and tears were shed before Dad finally relented.
The bus ride from the shack was horrible. Dad glared out of the window while Mum made futile attempts to jolly him up. When arrived at the stop near the old jetty, Dad ushered us off the bus and then jumped back on board.
‘I’ll do the registration at the Social Club,’ he said. ‘See you later.’
Before anyone could protest, the bus doors closed and he was gone.
A cold wind whipped the heaving sea and smashed waves against the rotting timbers of the old jetty. The brittle planking had collapsed in many places. At the far end, all that remained was some slimy piles jutting out of the water like broken teeth. A large sign on the road read: “DANGER – NO ENTRY!
No fishing! No diving! No swimming!”
Mum’s gaze darted between the sign and the rickety structure. ‘We’re not allowed here,’ she said flatly.
‘Come on, Mum, after all the hassle to get here. We’ve got to give it a go.’
‘No. It’s too dangerous.’
I pointed past the sign. ‘They’re allowed.’ Kids of all ages were perched along the jetty dangling their rods over the sides. Some dads with fancy rods had cast their lines further out.
Freddy knew how to convince her. He tilted his angelic face up, his big blue eyes welled with tears and his lower lip trembled. ‘Please, Mumma, I wanna catch a fish and win a prize … for Daddy.’
Mum sighed. ‘Okay, okay. I’ll wait here with the bait and tackle until Dad comes back.’ And then she uttered these fateful words: ‘Look after your brother.
He’s your responsibility.’
I held Freddy’s hand and carefully guided him across the treacherous planking. We only had handlines with pipis for bait, but if luck was on our side, we still stood a chance. Midway along the jetty we bagsed a hole and lowered our lines into the swell below. Straightaway our lines twitched and then my line tightened with a sharp tug. I planted my feet either side of the hole, took the strain and heaved. Suddenly the line went slack and I nearly lost my balance.
Whatever was down there had taken my hook, bait and sinker.
Freddy eagerly pulled up his line. His bait was gone too. ‘Must be a monster!’
A freckly kid came over to look. He rolled his eyes. ‘It’s probably a snag.’
Freddy’s eyes widened. ‘A snag? I wanna catch a humungous snag!’
The boy laughed. ‘Yeah, you’ll get plenty of snags down that hole.’
I took Freddy’s hand again and helped him back to Mum, sidestepping and leaping over the holes in the planking. I knew Freddy was anxious to get back before the other kids took over our hole and caught the monster fish he imagined was down there. ‘Better hook and bait me first, Mum,’ I said, but she slipped a pipi on to his hook before I could finish my sentence. Freddy darted off towards our spot: the snag hole.
I spun around. For a few horrible moments I tracked his blond head bobbing along the jetty and then he dropped from view. Time slowed. I tried to run. My legs turned to lead. I finally reached the hole, looked down and saw Freddy’s snowy hair wafting on the surface before he vanished beneath the water in a mass of bubbles.
Blackness. I didn’t decide to jump; perhaps I fainted and dropped through the hole. Whatever the reason, I fell for an eternity until my toes touched cold water. The wetness flowed up my body past ankles, knees, waist, and chest. There was no solidity beneath my feet. My head went under. At that moment Freddy bobbed up to the surface. He grabbed on to me, pushing me further under the water as he instinctively climbed up my body. I held his waist and lifted him above my head, frantically scissor-kicking my legs to keep us both afloat. The effort drained me.
I desperately needed to take a breath, but that meant letting go of Freddy so I could propel myself to the surface. If I let him go, he would surely sink or be swept out of reach. Who should live – him or me?
Under the water, in that eerie grey vastness, I was filled with a sense of peace. I made the decision to keep Freddy aloft until, with my last ounce of energy, I would push him off in the hope someone else would save him.
As I was about to let go, someone grasped my shirt collar and lifted my head out of the water. I gulped in a lungful of air. Whoever was in the water behind me propelled us towards a pile. I held Freddy so high he was like a little Jesus walking on water.
A man in a puffer jacket was halfway down the pile. He held on to a support beam with one hand and stretched his other hand down towards us. As a wave swelled, the water carried us up to him. The man seized Freddy just before the wave receded. My invisible saviour and I were sucked away from the pile. I glimpsed my brother passed up to other hands and out of view.
On the next upsurge, I was pushed from behind once more towards the man with the outstretched hand. This time my body slammed against the pile. I was winded by the impact and swallowed a mouthful of sea-water. Somehow the man managed to grab my left wrist. He shouted above the noise of the creaking timbers and the slap, slap of the water. ‘Next wave, climb up me. Can you do that?’
That was impossible; my energy was sapped. I dangled from the man’s hand like a rag doll ready for the sea to swallow me up. But when the wave came, the man tightened his grip and pulled just as the person in the water pushed. Suddenly I was catapulted upwards to the hands that had hauled Freddy to safety.
On the jetty I found Freddy alone, bedraggled and shaking violently from the cold. He threw his arms around my waist and sobbed. ‘Where’s Mumma? I want Mumma.’
Mum was nowhere to be seen. Our tackle box was still under the sign on the road. Had Mum left us too? This was all my fault; I was supposed to look after Freddy and I had messed up. We huddled together, shivering. The saltwater stung my eyes and a big graze on my chin. Blood trickled from dozens of barnacle cuts on my legs. The cold wind turned our wet clothes into icy wrappings.
Puffer jacket man came over to us. ‘Are you kids all right?’
I shook my head and shrugged. ‘We can’t find our mum.’
He pointed towards the water. ‘Is that her?’
I looked over the side and stared agape as my unseen rescuer dogpaddled towards the rocky shoreline.
‘There’s Mumma!’ Freddy cried.
Everyone on the jetty watched as Mum floundered in the choppy shallows and then clambered up the rocks to the road. Her waterlogged pants slipped down at the back exposing her underwear. The freckly kid and his mates pointed and jeered. I was mortified.
An old man helped Mum up the bank to the road. I took Freddy over to them. The old man offered to drive us back to the shack in his truck.
As usual Mum was more worried about Dad than us. ‘I can’t leave. What about my husband?’
The old man looked startled. ‘Is he in there, too?’
‘No. He’s at the Social Club but then he’s coming back here.’
‘Don’t worry, love,’ the old man said. ‘If he’s having a drink and not in the drink, he’ll be fine.’
When Dad came back to the shack, he burst in shouting. ‘What the hell? I leave you alone for five minutes and you bloody drown yourselves.’
Mum arced up. ‘Five minutes! You left us five hours ago and now you’re—’
‘I’m not pissed … pissed off more like it.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘You can’t even take care of the bloody kids.’
‘Oh, here we go—’
I caught Freddy’s eye. He knew the signal. We slipped away to the bedroom, climbed onto the top bunk, and crawled under the doona.
Freddy snuggled into me and I stroked his head. I tried to imagine what it would be like to live in a “happy” family. One where the father wasn’t always drunk. A family that did fun things together without dramas and fights. It was pointless; our family could never be like that. Dad loved drinking more than anything else and Mum spent all her energy trying to make him change.
Freddy whispered, ‘You saved me.’
I wrapped my arms around him. ‘Freddy, when we grow up, let’s be nice to our kids.’
‘And take them fishing.’
‘But no boozing and no fighting.’
I love how the rain sparkles when there’s a sun shower, don’t you?
There’s a quality of magic to it, like the sun knows it’s not really supposed to poke through the clouds while they’re busy washing sidewalks but does anyway and in an instant the sidewalks light up, puddles gleam like golden glass and the rain becomes a blanket of glittering magic between buildings and sky.
As I look out my front window now, I can see the leaves of the trees down the street dancing under the musical rhythm of the rain drops. The sun has slipped out of view and the world is drenched in grey again. It’s a flat unwelcoming grey that doesn’t much care if I like its mood or not.
I remember so many days like this, waiting home for you while the rain poured outside. You didn’t let any sort of Melbourne weather stop you going out.
There was a timelessness in those moments waiting, a heightened awareness of the space and quiet, like meditation, though not as peaceful. The undercurrent of worry about your whereabouts and the success or not of your mission would be top of mind. Were you safe? Had you been ripped? Were you comfortable yet? Would you fall asleep on the tram on the way home? Too many questions for a meditation.
I remember how life would sparkle for a moment when you were ‘on the gear’ in those early days. You’d be so relieved. You loved to come home with your new energy and cook us up a storm. I think the kids loved that part especially…the super-stacked homemade hamburgers with the lot, plus extra magic sauce mixes with BBQ, mayo, tomato and mustard together that only you would be game enough to combine.
There’d be laughter and music in that big kitchen at the old place. I can see you there now, plates lined up on the kitchen bench anticipating burgers while Jamaica the black cat stalks the carpet’s edge hoping to catch your eye.
In those moments you were the sun breaking through the grey. You were the magic between sanity and the encroaching dark.
My sense is you danced harder as the darkness grew. I’m guessing it was some vain attempt to hold back the storm that was inevitable. It makes sense that you were dancing even though none of us could hear the music anymore. It clearly played on for you, creating an alternate reality in your head that demanded that you stay.
Perhaps it might have been easier to have parted ways back then, but I couldn’t. You were dancing like a mad man and it felt too unkind to leave you there on an empty dancefloor without hope, without your family. Hope was so important in your willingness to recover.
In the later years, you grew tired of dancing and I know that’s when the real work began for us all. Those days were the beginning of a new maturity that I hardly noticed, yet they heralded the times to come without a doubt. I remember for example that I was less caught off guard by the sharp moments and more attracted to the ordinary ones… like the joy of picking up kids from school and talking happily in the car on the way home about the day they’d had. Simple, yet immensely satisfying in a world that was otherwise dominated by debtors and doctors and daily drives to the chemist.
As you struggled in the sobering years through the backlogs of financial and social impact it was heartbreaking watching you look in vain for your sparkle. I can get why you gave up for so long. Such sunken eyes. Such sorrow to carry. The road of recovery stretched out ahead of you without much hope or favor. It was unbearable mostly, that’s why the kids and I spent so much time on our computers and you, glued to the tv and the next best series you could find to drown your consciousness in.
Relationships simply passed you by in those days. The housemates that kept me company and filed though over the years in an effort to pay the bills. The friends that the kids bought home from time to time. There was a shadow around you, a cloud of grey in your complexion, a lifelessness in your sweeping through the loungeroom on your way out the back door for a cigarette. Like you were the ghost of the man we’d known once upon a time.
I remember odd times you’d get a rush of motivation and energy to parent yet the response you’d get back from the kids would only irritate you to the point of withdrawal. Of course, they were defensive, they’d known the worst of you and they didn’t know how to relate with those best-intentioned attempts to be Dad, that were mostly about chores and school and not much fun. Teens are prone to tune out anyway, they just didn’t have the mental bandwidth or compassion for your path. Perhaps we should have parted ways then? I guess I was holding hope we’d all grow out of the depression together. I think that’s what I might have said to one of those family counselors at some stage. I don’t remember exactly.
I didn’t know your Mum would have her nasty fall right before you took that trip up to
Queensland to see her. I did know those preceding few years had passed mostly the same, that it was finally time for us to go and that it might be easier to take our leave if you weren’t home.
I’d already seen the new place online before you left but didn’t sign the lease till you were with your family. We didn’t talk much over the phone I remember, you were so busy with your Mum’s hospital care and I was busy too. I knew it would be unbearable to go through a separation while we were all in the house together, still I felt awful about the timing. Knowing that you’d have tragedy after tragedy to face, I worried how hard that would hit you. The extra level of silence between us helped a bit.
The physical part of the packing and boxing kept me really busy so that I didn’t have that much time to ponder the future implications on you, or us. That was a wisdom of distraction that I could sense but couldn’t name. Leaving was the hardest thing I could imagine doing in my adult life, second only to the gravity of saying my farewells when Dad was dying.
I knew you’d be against it, but this was one of those times I decided for us both, like the times I had hidden money from you when you were actively using. It was silence as a protective defense for a greater good.
The change had been coming. I trusted some part of you knew it too. Like the inevitability of rain when the clouds hang heavy and dark and there are rumbles in the air. Separating was just the next necessary step in our recovery revolution.
It’s been two years now living at the new place. You looked so handsome that first time you came to visit. Was it a year later? So much went by in a blur that first year. Mostly I felt lost without purpose, my carer role evaporated and my sense of self hiding deep under layers of a highly functioning stress response. The silence between us was loud.
I was so impressed to see you stronger and healthier with all that Queensland sun and the meal routines that your sisters keep. You looked human again with weight on your bones. Your substance-of-choice really stripped you down to nothing for all those years. I was grateful you had organized somewhere else to stay in Melbourne so you could visit us at a pace we could all handle.
Your most recent visit was another level of joy. Only a couple of days yet jam packed with new memories of friendship and functional relating, with dinners out and picnics in the park and even laughter. Sober and laughter. Amazing. I know there are those moments you ask me with your eyes if I’m ready to talk yet about us. I know you know I’m not and you don’t ask.
Who’d have guessed after all these years that the sun would be poking through? It doesn’t mean that the grey years didn’t happen or that the clouds don’t still carry unspoken tears, but it does mean that when the sun pokes through it literally does feel like magic and sparkles.
No-one would have imagined we’d get this far if they knew our family 15 years ago. It just goes to show, you never can tell what the weather might do in Melbourne and a little rain might also be an opportunity for a sun shower, you just never know.
Here We Go Again
The house is in a silent mood. It breathes life, but it sobs quietly.
My best friend laughed at me when I tried to explain this, but maybe normal houses don’t act the same as ours.
I know its moods. I can tell when it’s empty. I can tell when she’s in there, passed out. Even then, there are two moods – music blaring, hiding the real noises; or silent and regular whirs of household machinery, the survival mode of the place we call home.
Today the house cries. The regular heartbeats can be heard.
Today is her payday so Mum will be lying on the lounge, trying to recover from her morning’s binge. The edge of the 750ml Jim Beam bottle on the floor, leans against a cushion she would have carefully placed on her way to oblivion. She does weird stuff like that, she thinks she’s so clever while having no idea how stupid it is to need a cushion to stop your bourbon from spilling. Just stand it up. Or. Don’t. Drink.
Tuesdays are the worst, as she runs out of money and the withdrawals kick in.
‘I need to go bush,’ she tells me with a determination that is only disguised by misery.
Is this the time? Will she come home this time? Should I call the police again? Will the ‘incident’ be an accident or deliberate; serious, embarrassing or fatal?
She tells us she loves us, but I know she wants out. Why aren’t we enough? Why can’t she just choose us and stay?
How much planning she puts into it shows how serious she is, how hurt she is and the likelihood of her returning safely. Going bush is her way of escaping, her solitude – and it will either refresh her or give her the means to injure herself – accidentally or carelessly. Either way, it’s a waiting game to see if she comes home, in what condition, by what mode – police, ambulance or taxi after the stay in hospital. And I know, one day, she won’t.
I hate this.
The thoughts that terrify me are those when I wish it were over. And it’s not that I want her dead. It’s not that I want her out of my life. I love my Mum. I just wish this rollercoaster would stop. When she’s well she’s a loving mum, hard-working but always there for the three of us. When she’s depressed, or on a drinking binge, she’s a burden.
She hates it too, I know. But she gets to escape by drinking herself into unconsciousness or by going bush, or by talking to her therapists.
I don’t get to escape. I live with the constant fear, walking up that driveway – what mood will the house be in today. I jump whenever the phone rings – it could be the police or the hospital. I can’t plan to go out with my friends, just in case she needs me. And none of us have brought friends to the house since Dad died.
What will my role be today? Will I be playing mum, housekeeper or counsellor? I hate having to play doctor. Seeing her bleed makes me want to vomit. Seeing her vomit makes me want to scream.
I am always first home. My brother finishes work later than we girls finish school – lucky him. My little sister finishes at the same time as me, but her bus route takes her around town, so she arrives home about 25 minutes after me. I could dawdle, and we could both enter the house together, but there are sights I never want in her head. That’s why I leave my last class ten minutes early and race home – to fix up the worst of it before she enters the house.
As I push the key into the lock, I glance to see who’s turning into the driveway. Oh great. Mum must have been drunk-texting again, and here’s the Pastor to check
‘Hi Stacey, how are you? You haven’t been inside yet?’ He glances down at the key in the door.
‘Nope, just got home.’ I state the obvious, trying not to be sarcastic.
‘How about you wait out here while I go check on ya mum?’
‘It’s okay Pastor Steve, I think I know why you’re here.’
‘Stacey, this is adult stuff. Let me deal with it, okay. You couldn’t understand.’
With a roll of my eyes, I remove the key from the now unlocked door and push it open. Without moving, I sweep my right arm through the doorway, inviting him into my house that I am not welcome in. ‘Please, go on in,’ I tell him.
Oh, how I wish it could be “adult stuff” — then I wouldn’t have to deal with it! But I do. This is my lot in life, regardless of my age. At thirteen, I have no doubt seen more than he has in his entire lifetime.
After 20 minutes of no return, I assume mum is in her argumentative mood, fighting his every suggestion.
He’ll try, ‘Why don’t you have a cuppa?’ and she’ll reply, ‘Why don’t you rack off!’
He’ll suggest, ‘Why don’t you try and sleep it off?’ and she’ll yell, ‘Leave me alone, I don’t need sleep!’
I pull out my homework and try to concentrate on something other than the house. It obviously works, I don’t hear him return.
‘Your Mum is watching TV. Be a good girl. Try to let her rest. She’s under a lot of stress so try to see things from her view. I’ll have someone send something over for dinner and I’ll check on her tomorrow.’
And with a sympathetic – condescending – pat on the shoulder he leaves, just as I hear Mel’s bus coming around the corner.
Yet another ‘Knight in Shining Armour’ came and saved the day and leaves.
He gets to drive away. He gets to come and go. Jeez, even Mum gets to come and go as she pleases. I don’t. And he will have someone bring over a meal! What’s with that? Who the hell does he think cooks every other meal on every other day when she doesn’t drunk-text someone? Who does he think looks after everyone and does the housework? And don’t tell me she’s stressed. She’s a drunk. A useless drunk!
‘Hey sis, why ya sittin’ out here?’ Chirpy Mel bounces up the driveway, pausing on her way. ‘Just enjoying the fresh air while I wait for you.’ I reply, faking a smile. ‘Good day?’
‘Pretty cool. Our table won the Best Table Award and ‘cos I have the most merit points, I got to pick the first prize and Miss Archer said there was something special in the box this week and I picked it out! Look, it’s a Best Friends Forever necklace and it’s all mine.’
She holds up the silver crescent around her neck and I read it aloud, ‘Best For’.
She is so excited that I instantly forget about the house and its mood, and Mum. This is what life after school should be like.
‘Stacey,’ she eases closer, reaching into her pocket, then holds her hand out to me, ‘I want you to have the other half.’
She hands me the pendant and I read it to her, adding, ‘that’s what we are, “Friends
Ever”. Best friends for ever.’
‘I know.’ She hugs me and skips toward the house.
I automatically react to stop her but know that Pastor Steve would have done the
“adult thing” and tidied up like always. Mel can just walk in and see Mum watching
TV, at least sober enough to disguise her day’s events from one so young. So, I stay outside for a while, looking at my new necklace with its half-heart shape and inscription.
This is just like Mum, half a heart. Broken in two. Two halves that make a whole, but not complete. I love one part and want to keep it close to my heart, but the other half is distant and disconnected from me. I only ever have one half of my
Something inside me smiles at this thought.
‘You know what,’ I say aloud without caring if neighbours can hear, ‘I love you Mum, so that’s the half I’m going to focus on.’
With this new picture in my head and my new pendant around my neck, I stand up and face the house.
‘Hi darling’ she stammers as I enter the loungeroom. Her eyes quickly give me the routine line of how sorry she is, followed by the request to please keep this a secret. ‘How was school?’
‘Hmm, not bad. I gave it a half-hearted attempt.’ I raise the pendant, smile on the inside and wink at Mel. As I make myself comfortable on the lounge with them, Mel continues telling Mum about her day. I then realise that the mood has lightened.
The house has wiped away today’s tears.
Blood is Thicker
The news arrived in the mail. Not an email. Not a text. But a real, honest-to-goodness, snail-mail envelope delivered by a woman on a red motor bike. It looked like a wedding invitation — the envelope was parchment coloured and textured, with a gold band in one corner. The handwriting, yes, the handwriting was in dark flowing green ink and was a work of art.
This was not an envelope to tear open. It was an envelope to savour. It was an envelope that required a letter opener. I hadn’t searched my study drawer for a letter opener in years, but it was quickly found nestled under the bent paperclips. The brass sword sliced the envelope open and the letter slid out and lay, folded, on my desk. The early morning sun flooded the room, lit up the document and gave it a lustre of intrigue. Questions abounded. I had no inkling what was in such fine correspondence. Part of me was itching to unfold it and part of me simply enjoyed the mystery. Suddenly, romantic thoughts of invitations to gala balls evaporated and I recalled similar letters — maybe not quite so grand — being delivered to my parents. They turned out to be invitations to subscribe to Reader’s
Digest. I snorted at my own stupidity and unfolded the stiff paper. “Deirdre!” Colin calls out from the kitchen. “Sophie’s just rung. She wants me to pick her up.”
I feel my heart leap as adrenaline surges. “Is she okay?” I call back, closing my laptop and walking down the corridor, pausing only to switch on a light.
“She didn’t say.”
“How did she sound?”
Colin looks at me sadly and gives a little snort. “As usual.”
I try to think of something positive. “At least she rang.”
“Yeah,” he replies resignedly. “I’ll be home shortly.”
“Drive carefully,” I say and give him a peck on the cheek, feeling his end-of-day growth under my lips. The roughness belies a man who cares and still cares after all these years. A man who has picked up his adult daughter on so many occasions.
I remembered the first day that we had, against our better judgement, given her the keys to the family car.
“It’s better than letting her friends drive,” Colin had said.
“Is it?” I had asked. “Is it?” I repeated and burst into tears. He stood with his strong arms around me as we watched her back out of the garage and drive off into the dusk.
“We can’t chaperone her forever”
“No,” I agreed. “But is she ready?”
“How will we ever know, if we don’t let her go. I don’t think she will betray our trust.”
“I think you have said that before.” I squeezed his hand. “I do hope you’re right.”
Our better judgement was the correct judgement. One should not go against one’s better judgement. This is a lesson I have learnt the hard way over the years.
“Mum, someone’s on the phone for you!” shouted Ben.
“Who is it?” I called back, not wanting to be interrupted. I had about one hundred words left to write of the conclusion to my research paper and it was well formed in my head. I didn’t want to lose it.
Sighing, I picked up the extension. “Dr Mayhew.”
“Err,” said the voice hesitantly, “are you Sophie’s Mum?”
“Umm. Sophie’s not well. Could you come and pick her up?”
“What do you mean, not well? Did you ring Colin first?” I replied, feeling annoyed that it might be just a headache again and that I really didn’t need this interruption right now. To be truthful, I thought Sophie was just trying to get out of playing soccer. She had never been keen on afterschool sports and it wouldn’t have been the first time that phantom illness reared its head. Not a good maternal response, I admit. “If she’s got a headache you have my permission to give her a Panadol and my husband will pick her up at the usual time.”
“I tried to ring Mr Mayhew but there was no reply. Dr Mayhew, it’s not a headache. Sophie’s rather nauseous and is dizzy. She’s fallen down a couple of times and thrown up.”
“For God’s sake,” I cried in alarm, “call an ambulance!” My mind flashed with thoughts of seizures. Sometimes being a neurologist made one think the worst. “I’ll meet the ambulance at Emergency. That will be the quickest.”
We soon learnt that an ambulance was not necessary for Sophie at such times. Instead, either Colin or I would pick her up, bring her home and get her to bed. Our lives revolve around our eldest child. Ben’s done fine. Remarkably fine. Solicitous of his sister, sure, but also willing to cut his own path. Unlike Sophie he’s studious. Unlike Sophie he likes and excels at sports. With Sophie we don’t know what we did wrong. With Ben we don’t know what we did right. Nurture or nature? Our children are all from the same gene pool and our parenting has been the same.
Our proudest moment with Sophie was, when against all odds, she graduated as a physiotherapist.
“Say sex,” cried out the photographer.
We all stared at him and said “sex,” in unison. That photo is on my desk where I can look at it every day. The four of us. Sophie is in the middle in her gown and trencher, looking both simultaneously pleased and uncomfortable. I look at Colin. His smile is fixed into saying “sex” but behind the eyes I think I see resignation. I wonder why he was resigned at that moment. Perhaps it was a premonition of the years to come? Ben is the only one looking unambiguously pleased for his sister. He’s always there for her but also a serene tropical island in a sea of turbulence. Sometimes we rely on him too much. Me? I am smiling too but my smile is an automatic one. Our hopes had been dashed so many times by our darling daughter that I couldn’t be genuinely happy, not even at that moment. Now that is sad.
I’m sixty-seven and still Sophie is on my mind. While my friends head off on cruises into the Pacific and explore obscure ports and bring back ‘native-carved’ trinkets with tiny ‘Made in China’ stickers on them, I can’t go away for more than a few days at a time. Luckily, my practice partners have always been flexible but, at times, I yearn for their lives. Ben’s married and has two little boys whom Colin and I love dearly.
Colin looks up from reading the crisp parchment and gives me a huge grin. “What an honour, Darling! So very deserved. Such fantastic recognition!”
I swallow and try to hold back my tears as he wraps his arms around me and gives me a huge hug. He steps back and looks at me seriously, then perching his glasses on the tip of his nose he reads grandly from the document:
“The Presidium of the World Neurological Summit 2020 has great pleasure in inviting Dr Deidre Mayhew to present the Keynote Speech, followed by her investiture into the World Fellowship in recognition of her unique contribution to the field.”
“Yes,” I say quietly, “it is a great honour.”
“And,” interrupts Colin, “you are invited to bring your family and all flights and accommodation are paid!”
I knew he would like that bit. He’s a skinflint, but a lovable one.
“Yes, it’s a generous offer.”
“So why are you looking so glum?”
“You’ve seen the date?”
He looks down and I can see him mouthing the dates and then his shoulders slump.
“Yes,” I confirm. “It’s right at the time of the hearing.”
“But surely they’d be willing to move the hearing. Particularly when you show them the invitation.”
“No,” I say. “I’ve tried. I’ve even spoken to the President of the
“Don’t they understand?”
“They say that Sophie is an adult — she is thirty-three — and if she can’t do it without her parents then that actually tells them a lot about her suitability to be a physiotherapist.”
“How dangerous can a physiotherapist be?” says Colin in exasperation.
“They won’t listen. It’s all about bringing the profession into disrepute.”
“Rubbish! They can’t deregister her!”
“Oh yes they can.”
Suddenly, Colin looks at me and his face softens. “Darling, maybe it’s time. They’re right. Sophie is an adult. We can’t care for her forever. We won’t be here forever. Surely, we deserve a little bit of freedom? Time just for us?”
I look down at the gold-embossed letter with its bold green hand-writing. I feel its texture. It’s smiling encouragement at me. I move my fingers to the centre of the paper. It’s thick. It’s got substance. Gravitas. Deftly I rip it in two and let it drop to the ground.
“No, Colin. Blood is thicker than alcohol. Another time perhaps.”
I’m here early. We’re doing the handover in the park between my place and hers, as usual.
She can’t say that I wasn’t here and drive away.
From the car I watch others pull up and park. Kids in rainbow coloured jerseys jump out, slamming doors, jostling and calling out in a race to the oval.
A smile loosens my clenched jaw.
Soon. He’ll be here soon. All these jagged edges will be softened once his little arms fling around my neck.
The dog nudges my arm. Her bottle-nose reminds me of the Crown Lager back in my fridge. I could do with that right about now.
‘Wait!’ I say. It’s too cold to get out just yet.
I check my phone for messages. Nothing.
I watch soccer balls crisscross the oval like in a pinball game.
My stomach grumbles. Soon we’ll be eating pancakes at the Golden Arches. Brodie’ll be dunking everything in maple syrup and I’ll be wiping sticking smears from the car for days, with a stupid grin on my face.
There’s my stomach again. I can’t wait. I reach for the emergency pack of Twisties I keep in the glovebox. I rip open the foil packet and the car fills with that fake-cheesy smell.
The dog looks at me with feed-me eyes.
I stuff some in my mouth and toss a few to her. When I’m finished, she licks my fingers clean. The gentle rasping of her tongue calms me for some reason.
We hop out of the car and walk over to the bench, leaving footprints in the dewy grass.
The bench is out in the open. Easily seen from all angles. And I’m hard to miss in a HiViz work shirt. Best to leave nothing to chance.
I thought they might be here by now. The dog pushes up against me. She senses I’m on edge. Or she wants to get warm. Either way, it’s OK.
A blue car pulls up and I straighten. But it’s not hers. Unless she’s got a new car. It’s about time she replaced the old rust-bucket she drives before it breaks down… again. I’ve heard that excuse more than once: I’m sorry Nathan, but the car’s broken down and we’re stranded in Dubbo, (or some other far-flung blood country town) and we’ll have to stay another night while it gets fixed.
The car doors open and slam shut. A couple of kids race over to where I’m sitting, followed by their dad.
‘Can we pat your dog?’ they ask. And before I can answer they’ve got their arms around her and she’s nuzzling into them.
‘What’s it’s name?’
I try not to grimace. ‘Her name’s Lollipop.’ The Dad raises his eyebrows and smirks.
‘My kid named it,’ I shrug.
He gives an acknowledging nod. ‘Rescue dog?’
‘Yeah. I think her racing name was Flash, or something fast. She didn’t live up to it.
Apparently. Their loss, our gain.’
‘Can we get one, Dad?’ the kids plead. The dad responds by herding them off to the action on the oval.
Still not here. I’m worried now.
I hear a siren in the distance. It’s not for them. It wouldn’t be for them.
I give up and call.
No bloody answer.
I start to pace. The dog’s happy to be moving. There’s not much meat on her bones to keep her warm, unlike me.
The ringtone makes me jump. My fingers fumble the phone. I look at the screen before answering. It’s her. I take a deep breath to prepare myself.
‘Nathan where are you?’ She’s impatient.
‘I’m in the park, waiting! Where are you?’
‘I’ve been waiting in the park for 20 mins for you to turn up.’
‘Well, I’ve been here for the past bloody 50 minutes. How can you miss me? I’m the one looking like a ninja turtle in my Hi-Viz shirt!’
‘What are you talking about?’
The reference is lost on her. The kid would get it.
‘Nathan, what park are you at?’
‘What do you mean what park? The usual bloody park, Shelly. The one we always meet
There’s that sigh. The one that makes my whole body tense. I know what comes next: the measured, over-calm, superior voice that’s about to tell me that I’ve stuffed up again and it’s a shame I’m such a dim-wit. I steel myself.
‘Oh Nathan!’ She’s dripping fake pity but there’s acid in her words burning right into my bones. ‘Don’t you remember? I said we need to meet at the park near me today because I have to drive up the coast for the weekend and leave, like, 10 minutes ago.’ I shake my head in disbelief. Of course I don’t bloody remember. Because there never was that conversation. But who’s going to believe a dim-wit like me? She really is something, my ex.
‘Ok Shelly.’ I huff. ‘Where are you? I’ll come over to you.’
I know, lurking behind all this ‘poor Nathan’ shit, there’s a slam dunk and I’m waiting for it like a dog who keeps returning to its master to be kicked.
‘But Nathan. I’m meant to be on the road. I can’t wait. I’ll have to take Brodie with me now.’
And there it is.
‘No, no, no ,no! That’s bullshit. Don’t do this to me again, Shell. You know that’s bullshit. You have to give me Nathan for the weekend. It’s what the court said.’
This time I can hear the spite. ‘Well that’s only going to work if you can keep to the arrangements, Nathan.’
My rage is building now. ‘There was no bloody new arrangement, Shelly and you know it,’ I shout down the phone.
‘I don’t have to listen to you speak to me that way,’ she says, and the line goes dead.
That doesn’t stop me yelling a stream of obscenities into it.
A mother shoots me a disapproving glance and ushers her kids further away. I don’t blame her. I’d do the same. If my kid were here. Which he’s not.
I punch in her number, again. But she’s blocked me, I know it. I don’t even get to talk to my kid.
I’m crushing the phone in my hands.
I slump back onto the bench, defeated.
Lollipop lays her head on my lap. I rub her ribs and gradually feel my heartbeat and breathing slow.
I try to comfort myself with the fact that the world is a better place with my kid in it, even if he’s not with me.
What else can I do? Call another bloody lawyer? Fat lot of use they’ve been so far.
Lollipop looks up at me.
‘Come on girl, let’s go for a walk.’