I look down at the pile of paper sitting on the kitchen table and the list Claire has prepared. My shoulder starts aching.
“You need all of this?” I’m in utter disbelief at what she’s presented. Claire’s face is earnest and eager. Mine twists into a frown and I try to rotate my shoulder.
I admire my ten year old daughter’s thoroughness and organisation. Claire is Matthew’s daughter, despite the dark curls and amber eyes inherited from me. In the past year I’ve barely been able to scribble a simple shopping list, much less ensure I get everything on it. He should be helping her through this, not me.
I don’t want to rain on her parade, but I’m appalled by the fact she needs a council permit, written proof of ten million dollar public liability coverage, written approval from the local traders association, shops and residents just to play some bloody Christmas carols on her flute to raise money for UNICEF.
But I owe this to Claire–to jump through these paper-trail hoops, so on behalf of ‘All Ye Faithful’ she can bring some ‘Joy to the World’.
“The problem is the public liability cover.” She points to it, highlighted in bright yellow on the list.
“Are you intending on wrecking a yuletide swath of death and destruction through Bondi?” The words are out and hanging between us before I realise what I’ve said. The utter absurdity of the local council bureaucracy has brought part of the old me back. “Honestly Claire,” I say quietly, “why don’t you just wander downstairs and play.”
“And break the law Mum?” There is a dramatic gasp, which would sound melodramatic from any child other than Claire, who was already too serious about life before last Christmas. “Are you really encouraging me to do something illegal?”
“All I’m suggesting, is this,” I motion to the printed piles of paper, “is lacking in common sense.” I throw my hands in the air and stand up. “Last year…” I catch myself this time and rather than finish the sentence I get up and walk out. Claire deserves better from me, they all do but I just don’t know how.
Opening the fridge door I stick my head in, take a deep breathe of frigid air, and give thanks it is not the gas oven.
It is December 10th. The tree’s not up. I haven’t written or received any Christmas cards. The company Christmas picnic is tonight, but the invite just said ‘Company Picnic’–specially doctored by Matthew. The girls haven’t made cut and paste wish lists from the proliferation of catalogues which choke the mail box like lantana or begun the Christmas haggling for inappropriate gifts they’ll never get.
I need something to get me through, but I have no idea what. I need to know I will do this, but the best I can promise is an ephemeral I think I can. I will be the little red caboose of Christmas cheer. I think I can… I think I can. If I say it enough times, I might actually believe it.
The fridge is beeping at me and Claire is standing at the bench staring at me. I’m forever at the girls to decide before they open the door, so I pretend to be looking for something right up at the back.
“I forgot about the coleslaw for tonight,” I lie.
My hands are full of carrots when I stand up.
“What should I do about the insurance, Mum?”
“Ring your father.”
“Christ, not ABBA Mum.” Jane, my 14-year-old daughter, strides across to the stereo and flicks through the docked iPod and chooses something more to her liking. Eddie Vedder’s angst ridden voice fills the kitchen. Anything but Pearl Jam I want to beg. “For someone with awesome musical taste, you really suck sometimes.”
It is the closest she has come to a compliment in months, but can’t enjoy it. I want to scream at her that, ‘Once Upon a Time’, I didn’t give a rat’s arse about what anyone else thought about my taste in music. ‘Once Upon a Time’ I didn’t give a shit about making coleslaw for a company picnic I didn’t want to go to. ‘Once Upon a Time’ when I was hurting and lost I’d just drink myself stupid until the yellow brick road emerged and I got on with it, or I passed out. ‘Once Upon a Time’, not too long ago, Christmas meant something else.
But to Jane I’m just a pathetic, middle-aged woman with about as much relevance to her life as the discarded ballet slippers and Barbie Dolls. Both donated to The Salvation Army when we moved.
Since we got here, Jane’s seized on the idea she’s complicated and misunderstood, but I like to think I can read her like a book. It’s a cover for how she’s really feeling, but she’s made it abundantly clear she doesn’t want to talk about it. I want to think it is Jane who needs me, but it’s me needing her.
“Don’t…” I say, pausing mid-grate to point a carrot at her. “Or it’ll be ‘The Rivers of Babylon’ before you can say Bony-M.”
She rolls her eyes but loiters by the corner of the bench.
Because Matthew is not Jane’s father, he gets a better perspective on our relationship. He says I go up so hard against her because she is too much like I was at this age. Matthew and I were at high school together and his memory is better than mine. He says I am too tough, but I disagree. He’s too soft.
“Just thought I’d let you know, Lauren is going to be here in five.” She doesn’t look at me when she says this, announcing it instead to the walk-in pantry.
“I’ve talked to you about this before–this thing you’ve got going with your friends where our apartment becomes a halfway house.” I grate the carrot faster, watching it disappear as the pain sears through my shoulder. “We are not having a repeat of the September holidays. You need to ask me before inviting your friends over. OK?”
The carrot misses the grater and I skin two knuckles. Swearing under my breath I wait for the blood to rush to the surface.
“We live right on Bondi Beach Mum. Everyone wants to come here. I thought it would make you happy.” This is important enough to turn and say to my face. “Besides. Lauren is my new bestie.”
“So, Lauren’s flavour of the month,” I say pushing into my knuckles to stop them bleeding. It makes them hurt more, but I don’t mind, it distracts me from my shoulder.
“You make it sound like ice cream”
“These friendships seem to last as long.”
I push past her, into the pantry for a band-aid.
“You wanted me to make friends, so I did.”
I stick my head out of the pantry. “I want you to make some proper friendships Jane–not these fly-by-night acquaintances.”
“You want me to have real friends, like all your real friends here.”
I flinch and stay in the pantry longer than I need to. Jane knows just how to find the tender bits and jab her finger into them while missing the bleeding wound in the middle.
“And Mum, while Lauren is here, don’t call me Jane. I’ve changed my name to Alexandra. Alex for short.”
“You’ve what?” I’m straight out of the pantry trying to get the band aid to stick.
Jane pulls a piece of paper from her pocket of her too-short cut offs, unfolds it with dramatic flourish and slaps it down on the marble bench.
“I was holding off telling you because of the whole Christmas thing.”
I snatch up the paper and see my daughter has legally changed her name
“When the hell did this happen? You’re only 14. You can’t legally change your name.”
“Dad signed the form.” Jane squares her shoulder and juts her chin out.
“He what?” The band-aid has stuck to itself, not me. I rip it apart and flick it on the floor.
“He wanted to know what I wanted for Christmas and I told him I wanted to change my name.”
“You didn’t discuss this with me. Or him for that matter.”
“This is my Christmas present from him. I didn’t even know if we’d be having Christmas this year.”
“Of course we’re having Christmas.” I slap my good hand down on the bench. “You deliberately chose not to tell me because you knew I would say no.” I want to tear up this piece of paper, this betrayal. “Why do you do this to me Jane?”
“You were christened Jane Louise.”
“And I just un-christened myself–officially.” Her head moves from side to side and her hands are on her hips. “Dad understands me. You don’t. He wants me to be happy. You just want me to be miserable, like you.”
She snatches the document from my hand, the top right hand corner staying between my thumb and forefinger.
“If he’s so generous and understanding how about you ask him why never paid a single cent in child support for you,” I scream after her. The bedroom door slams shut but I don’t stop. “If he’s such a brilliant bloody father you ask him where he was for the first four years of your life.”
After all the shouting the kitchen is still–quiet and empty. I’m wavering, like I’m standing on the edge of a cliff being consumed by vertigo, when a set of arms snake around my rib cage, squeezing me tight. They ground me as my chest beings to fall in on itself and the tears sting like onion.
“I love you Mum.”
Claire hugs me close to me and I burying my fingers in her hair, realising how much time as passed – how tall Claire is, how long her hair has grown.
“Jane’s Dad’s a real bastard isn’t he?”
I nod, despising myself for sharing this with her.
“I’m glad he’s not my Dad.”
When I can breathe again, I wipe the escapee tears away with the back of my carrot-stained hand and I hold her at arms length, looking at her seriously.
“What did I tell you about swearing Claire?”
“But I’m right, aren’t I?”
I never thought coleslaw could be cathartic–I’ve hated it since I got stuck doing the washing at school camp–coleslaw impregnated water, wrist deep, clinging to my skin. But I get lost in a frenzy of cutting and grating, carrots and cabbages becoming shredded piles of vegetable. If only dismembering Oliver was this easy.
The past year I needed him to stop playing Jane against me, instead it feels like he has taken the war to a whole new level. Or maybe it was me? It is easier to be angry with the living–to blame them. Raging against Oliver is like putting on comfy slippers. I understand, it makes sense.
Oliver is no more responsible now, than he was at twenty when it all too difficult and he walked away. He’s a sperm donor more than a father and he infects Jane with his reckless disregard for everything, including me. He gives her everything she wants; DS, iPod, mobile phone, laptop, independent internet connection, just to piss me off. It was him who suggested Facebook so they could keep in touch, when I had already said no.
And now he’s taken her name.
The security buzzer startles me and I wait an inconvenient length of time before letting Lauren up. When she arrives she ignores me and waltzes blithely into my kitchen, stands with the door open while the fridge beeps for a minute, takes two cans of my Diet Coke and then goes to Jane’s room.
“Thanks Mrs. Connolly,” I call out after her.
“I don’t think she heard you, Mum,” Claire says, as she slides into the kitchen with a grin on her face. “I hear blondes are dumb and deaf.”
I wrinkle my brow at Claire because if I don’t, I know I will smile and I don’t want to encourage her.
“Dad says he can register me as an employee so I come under his work policy. Cool huh? He’s faxing the details now.” She is literally jumping up and down on the spot. “I need to go to the Town Hall so I can lodge all these forms? You’ll just need to sign them in black pen where I…”
I look away not wanting Claire to see the look of terror on my face at the idea of going outside. She talks a million miles an hour as shoves the bundle of papers into my hand with a pen. When it goes quiet Claire’s huge amber eyes swallow me.
Claire and I are hot and flustered when we arrive home; my nerves are shot after being caught in the peak hour commute. There is loud whooping and giggling coming from the balcony and the kitchen is a mess of two minute noodles and empty Diet Coke cans. I smell the top of one–Bacardi.
Stepping onto the balcony I find girls sitting in their bikinis, huddled over the screen of my digital camera.
“Oh yeah. Seven swans are a-swimmin’ bay-bee, a-ha!”says Lauren like she’s channelling some trashy rapper’s girlfriend, and takes a long swig from the can nearest her.
“What the hell is going on here? Jane?”
They look up. Jane is mortified, knowing she’s not meant to have my camera. Lauren gives me with a haughty expression I’d love to wipe off her sunburnt face.
“You know not to touch my camera.”
“It’s OK Mrs. C, really. Alex told me and we made sure we backed up all the photos before we went down to the beach.”
“You took my five thousand dollar camera down to the beach!”
I tear it from Jane’s hands and begin to scroll through the photographs on the screen.
There are what seems to be hundreds of photos of athletic men in board shorts. One has all seven of them lined up at the surf break. But it is the one of Jane riding on broad, muscle-bound shoulders which makes me snap.
“Who the hell are these men?”
“They’re guys from the Swans, Mum.” Jane’s voice is barely audible.
“You’re so random Mrs. C.” Lauren treats me like a joke. “You live under a rock or something?”
I stop myself from grabbing her by the throat and instead wind the camera strap tightly around my hand.
“The Sydney Swans, Mum. The AFL team.”
“You were at the beach with football players?” It explodes from me with so much force my mind editorialises a shock wave, but it is more likely the sea breeze finally picking up.
“It’s OK Mrs. C. They’re not league players.”
“Go… home… Lauren. I’ll call your mother later on.”
“Whatever.” She shrugs her shoulders. “You’ll be lucky to catch her. Better send a text?”
She sways for a moment when she gets up and hits me purposely with her shoulder as she walks past. I remember facing off against bitches like her in night clubs years ago, all mouth and passive aggressiveness, but slapping her won’t help the situation.
I turn my attention back to the camera screen, flicking back through all the photos until I come to the last one I took–Christmas Eve last year, a moment frozen in eternity. We were all smiling then.
“What were you intending to do with these photos, Jane?”
“Put them on Facebook”
“It’s harmless, really.”
“Fourteen year old girls cavorting about with men twice their age is not harmless. And it is not harmless posting this sort of stuff on the internet where anyone can see it and use it.”
“Anyone but you that is.” The fight is back in her. She stands to square off against me. “This is you being pissed off because I won’t be your Facebook friend, isn’t it?” She tilts her head slightly to the side, which drives me insane and puts her hands on her hips.
“This has nothing to do with Facebook; it has everything to do with you going through my stuff, using my camera, making plans to hook up with men ten years older than you who have just as bad a reputation as their league buddies.” I turn to walk off but stop. “As for Facebook delete your account, now.”
“You can’t make me.”
“Try me Jane. Just try me.” My eyes narrow and I keep hold of the camera so I won’t hit her.
“I hate you.”
“I hate you too. I wish you’d never been born.” And immediately I want to catch the words and choke them back down inside of me.
“I wish you were dead,” she screams.
The apartment is dark and quiet when I open my bedroom door hours later. My mouth feels like it’s full of cotton wool. For a moment I hope the afternoon was a bad dream, as I rub my dry, itchy eyes and yawn. But it wasn’t.
The kitchen is tidy – the pots washed, rubbish binned and the cans taken out to the recycling chute. I gulp down two glasses of water and the life seeps back into my body as the water hits my empty stomach. My shoulder is stiff and painful.
When I walk out into the lounge-room there are tea-lights half-burnt on the coffee table. My copy of Love Actually lies abandoned. I vaguely remember Claire trying to lure me out of my room with a promise to watch it with me.
I go into the girl’s bedrooms, one by one and pull up sheets, open windows to the warm night air and turn off the air conditioners, iPods and bedside lamps. I bend down and kiss their foreheads, pushing back apple-sweat hair. And I linger next to Jane, wishing I could wipe away the last year. It is too easy to be angry with her because when I look at her, I see Oliver. And when I see Oliver I can’t forget. The guilt is like a python, strangling me slowly from the inside out.
I blow out the tea-lights and walk onto the balcony. The heat of the day has retreated only so far and the promise of the sea breeze hasn’t eventuated. I miss the humidity of home.
A group of teenagers walk by singing a fractured rendition of the 12 Days of Christmas. A bottle smashes and someone cheers. Across the road surfers are catching waves in the moonlight and an eruption of laughter fills the air from further down the street, where late-night diners are putting away alcohol they’ll regret tomorrow morning.
In this moment I realise I am in a holding pattern up here in this penthouse overlooking Bondi, waiting for the control tower to tell me it is clear. I’ve been waiting an entire year, warning lights flashing. Running on empty and waiting for a voice to tell me it is OK to come down now.
Up here, I have built my own prison, constructed it from guilt– the guilt which mires me in the present, so I find no peace in the past or any hope in the future. I’m Rapunzel in her tower being choked to death by her beautiful, long, golden hair. I may as well be six feet under.
Matthew’s promotion was an easy excuse to leave Gordonvale–to put the accident behind me. I thought if I was somewhere else I would move on. People wouldn’t know. I could start again. But I haven’t made a life for myself here–down there where life goes on.
I grip the railing and yearn for the molasses-sweet plumes from the sugar mill, settling over life instead of the foreign tang of salty air. This year the sugar crushing season happened somewhere else. Someone other than me was excited when the neon star went up on the steam stack heralding the start of the festive season.
I thought this was the way I wanted it to be, but I’m homesick. I don’t just want to go back, I need to.
And I want my Mum.
Cold glass on the back of my neck snaps me out of my thoughts. Matthew hands me a beer, kisses me where the skin has chilled and sits down, putting his feet up on the railing. It is surreal. His crisp white business shirt is soft now, unbuttoned, untucked and he’s looking more like he walked off the set of Blue Lagoon than in from the office.
I remember the last time Matthew handed me a beer.
We were sitting on our front veranda, an evening so clammy it was like being wrapped in a hot, wet blanket; Jack Johnson lyrics floating out from the lounge-room; feet up on the railing, looking out across the neighbour’s paddock stubbled with brand-new, month-old sugarcane.
Matthew urging me to quit the guilt trip I was letting my mother put me on, because I had stood my ground and refused to invite Oliver to Christmas lunch. It was our house. We’d invite who we wanted, not who Jane wanted. And not who my mother wanted. It was just a storm in a tea cup and Jane would see Oliver Christmas Night. All would be well in the world again on Boxing Day.
“I’m sorry about the picnic,” I say without the slightest hint of regret. “The kids rang you?”
I take a mouthful of beer, hold it in my mouth until it is warm and bitter, then swallow. My stomach churns, but I take another, and another.
“She was upset,” Matthew says, “and worried.”
I turn my back on him and follow a line of waves in to the beach. I don’t want him to be Jane’s champion. He moves beside me and passes me a crumpled envelope.
“Jane wrote it. She didn’t think you would read it if she pushed it under your door.”
I hand it back. “I don’t want to read it.”
“She’s hurting too, Lou… Give the girl a chance.”
He tries to put his arm around my waist but I stiffen at his touch and move away, hugging the beer close to my heart. He sighs and sits back down, resting his elbows on his thighs. I stay standing, my hip kissing the railing, the beer dangling from my fingertips.
“Are you going to read it?”
I shake my head.
“Then you leave me no other option.” He blocks my way back inside and I don’t even try. The best I can muster is turning my back on him again.
“When you were in your room Jane rang her father. She wanted to go to him and he said no–point blank. Turns out he married earlier this year, without telling anyone and he’s too busy with his wife and her kids to have Jane.”
I don’t say anything, just drink more beer.
“Part of the deal was she took my surname instead of his. Jane just wanted to be Alex, so she agreed. She thinks the only reason he let her change her name was to get rid of her.”
I start to shake, my heart breaking for my beautiful daughter who didn’t ask to be born into such hatred. The fury uncurling the serpentine guilt for the first time and I hurl my beer bottle over the balcony. It smashes on the road and I become someone I truly hate.
“I’ll kill the bastard!”
Matthew catches my wrist as I try to storm past into the lounge-room to get my mobile.
“Stop it, Lou.”
“No more!” I fight against Matthew. “It ends tonight.” I’m hitting him. “I hate Oliver. I hate him so much. It’s all his fault.”
I lash out, pummelling Matthew until the fight is gone and I slump to the floor crying. The dike of my grief is breached and I cry hard, so hard I can’t breathe. My chest feels as though someone has put hot iron bands around it and is both heating and tightening them, torturing the truth from me. Panic overwhelms me
Matthew talks me through it, rubbing my back, telling me he loves me. He tells me it is good I am letting it out. But I shake my head. I’m weak. I’m pathetic. And I’m guilty. I sink my nails into the flesh of my face.
My chest heaves but I manage to suck in some air. My face is punctured and bruised from my nails. I crawl away from Matthew, across the tiles and press my back into the railing, forcing air in and out of my lungs.
“I need to tell you something,” I gasp. The surf crashes behind me and below someone drives the length of the esplanade with their hand pressed on the horn.
There is nothing left. I give up. The battle is over.
“We were arguing on the way to the bottle shop,” I say finally when I trust myself to breath and talk. “And I didn’t tell the police.”
Mum and her bloody Father O’Leary’s Cappuccino Cream. Me the daughter never good enough, who forgot to buy it. And Mum insisting on coming with me.
They say most car accidents happen just five kilometres from home. We were 4.7kms at the only set of traffic lights in the town.
“She started on me as soon as we were out of the driveway. That was the only reason she wanted to come with me–corner me in there. She accused me of being purposefully hateful to Jane, just to get back at Oliver. And I was furious. She said Oliver tried hard, he did his best but it’s always me compromising. Give, give, give. And Oliver take, take, take. Fucking saintly Oliver and evil, nasty Louise.”
A breeze picks up and cools the sweat on my body. I wait for more tears, or anger, but there’s nothing. I’m empty and it is a relief.
“We were yelling, the light turned green and I gunned it across the intersection. Had I looked…”
I close my eyes and feel the impact as the Landcruiser hits us doing a hundred, obliterating the passenger side, driving us through the intersection and into the culvert. Rolling once. Twice.
I’m upside down. The screech and whine of the jaws-of-life trying to cut Mum free. An ambulance officer pressing a pad against my head. A neck cuff supporting my neck. Lights flashing. People yelling.
And she was gone.
I walked away with twenty stitches in my forehead and a broken shoulder which couldn’t be set properly.
“You were hit by a drunk driver, Lou. This isn’t your fault. Or Oliver’s. Neither of you killed your Mum. The coroner –”
I shake my head. “What if we hadn’t been arguing? What if I’d looked and seen the four-wheel drive? Realised it wasn’t slowing down? What if I’d got the bloody Cappuccino Cream? What if I’d told her to stay home like I wanted her to? What if I’d invited Oliver to Christmas lunch? What if we’d left a minute earlier or a minute later?”
“And what if you’d died?” It is barely a whisper and I can’t look at him, see the pain he’s carrying. “What would I have done without you? What about the girls?”
How many times have I wished it was me instead of her? Believing I deserved it because I am ungrateful, selfish and hateful. Because I’m not good enough and she was.
How I have wanted to die, to be free of the guilt and the what ifs–knowing I would leave behind Claire and Jane and Matthew? And another wave of crushing, debilitating guilt because I want the relief.
I choke up and Matthew drops down next to me.
“She died thinking I hated her,” I sob, burying my head in his chest.
He puts his arms around me.
“You don’t have to make the same mistake with Jane,” he says when I stop crying.
He’s right. And I know it can’t wait because sometimes there is no tomorrow. I sit there a while with Matthew, then wipe away the tears which are nothing more than salt trails now and go inside to wake Jane.
Bondi Beach is possibly the most famous of the Australian beaches, albeit not the most beautiful. The word ‘bondi’ is believed to be Aboriginal for water breaking on rocks.
Thanks go to Claire and Scott who gave me the original fodder for this story, taking it away from the sappy idea I had about ballet – though the original idea about death remained. Thanks also to the wonderful readers and writers who helped to shape ‘Bondi’ through numerous re-writes – Edwina, Jen, Rob, Diane and Rebecca.
Jodi Cleghorn is a writer, editor and publisher from Brisbane, Australia. She is the co-creator of Chinese Whisperings and eMergent Publishing, with business partner Paul Anderson and is eagerly awaiting the launch of their first conceptual anthology The Red Book in 2010. When not working on Chinese Whisperings, Jodi has spent her time this year weaning herself off non-fiction writing, exploring new fiction projects such as her Fourth Fiction novella and investigating the submission process. You can read her weekly column at Write Anything, follow her on twitter or facebook.
If you read this and don’t have tears in your eyes – then your heart is as cold and solid as a stone.
Pingback: I love you. I love you not « Writing in Black and White
Great exploration of a character’s guilt and its impact on relationships. Such real characterisation.
Adam B @revhappiness