They were supposed to be the ones she’d never forget. Leyland, of course. Forty years married, mostly happily. Three kids. She always said she couldn’t complain. After he went there were years of grief then Lester, who surprised her—he’d been a neighbour for so long.
She’d been engaged to Col before Leyland. He was everything her eventual husband wasn’t—a free spirit with energy to burn, but short on commitment when it mattered. Who else? Sam had been the one she’d admired from afar, and when he asked her to the school dance it was as if a wish had been granted.
All gone now. Memories, the lot. It left only Bobby Lowe. The boy who kissed her. Grade four, Long Park Primary. ‘Never heard of him mum,’ said Lola, smoothing her mother’s hair.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘he was lovely.’
Dapper. She probably hadn’t even thought that word for years. But there was no denying—that’s exactly what Ewan was. To a ‘T’. The word was made for him. His suit was cut sharp and he wore his black felt hat just slightly angled. Loni was intrigued.
At dinner his manners were precise. He spoke—impeccable English, of course—about slow cooking and regency poets. He chose just the right wines. He suggested a walk on the terrace before dessert. Later it occurred to her that the whole evening had been a performance.
Ewan ushered her through the door of his apartment with a gentlemanly hand on the small of her back. Then he went to fix martinis while she freshened up. That’s when the magic cracked. Matching ‘his’ and ‘hers’ towels had been hung in perfect symmetry on the bathroom rail. Ewan brought the drinks back to the loungeroom only to catch the last instant of the front door swinging shut. He looked at the drinks, bewildered. Another perfect evening, another night alone.
Three and five—evens. Hansy scooped up the dice just as Dee returned with the shopping. Evens, he thought. So I’m leaving. Evens I go, odds I stay. He turned the ivory-cold cubes around his palm. Ran his thumb along the rounded edges.
‘Careful with those things.’ Dee laughed but her eyes met his straight and hard.
‘No worries, Love. just mucking around.’ That’s what he’d said when he lost almost everything—their savings, the house. Nearly her too. He still didn’t know how she’d had the courage to stay. He was just mucking around. He wouldn’t be going anywhere in a hurry.
Best out of three he thought, sending the dice tumbling across the coffee table.
‘Don’t wear anything furry,’ I’d said. She arrived in cotton pants and a crisp linen shirt—hoped it wasn’t too formal for a movie. Perfect. I found it hard to explain how fluffy things overwhelmed me—how I wanted to plunge into them. But when I asked if we could move seats she seemed to understand. A girl with a fur collar had taken the seat in front of me. ‘My god, Eric, you’re shaking. Is it an allergy?’
‘Not quite,’ I said. ‘More a fascination. An urge to touch. Almost too much to bear’. Usually when I had this conversation things crumbled. I was tall and athletic and I was supposed to like hard, uncompromising things.
But Anita took it in her stride. Said it was cool. Different. Made things interesting. She wanted to know the details. We talked until midnight, mostly about soft things.
On our next date she wore angora. ‘Knock yourself out, big boy,’ she said, with a smile I hoped I’d never forget.
It got so that the partings seemed to no avail. Every time the battalion was set to sail a new problem arose—dysentery in the barracks, a storm at sea, unfounded intelligence. Four times she saw him off at the station—kissed him among the steam and clatter of the locomotive. Held him until the guard’s whistle, until the train’s slack carriages clanked taut and started slowly moving.
On the fifth occasion they laughed about it. ‘What’ll it be this time, locusts? Maybe snow on the tracks—not likely in this heat?’ Then the guard called all aboard, the train whistle sounded and Lonnie pecked her cheek and leapt aboard. As he disappeared in the steam and smoke, Alice had the odd sensation of not having properly said goodbye. And all at once she knew. She knew.
Dr Cheryl allowed Carlos to sit in on her Immigration Law classes. Social activists like her didn’t let regulations get in the way of things. Not where a sense of righteousness was concerned. ‘You don’t have to enrol. You’ve got a right to learn,’ she’d told him.
At uni he used his mother’s name—Rodriguez. He was just one of the class. Lisa Hartigan was the outsider. She was from the Department. Carlos admired her, the way she stood up for herself, argued the case against the ones she called do-gooders. At the end of semester he got paired with her during a group exercise. His heart skipped just a little until he remembered she could have him on a plane tomorrow if she really knew who he was. At the end of the class she asked if he wanted to join her for a drink. He’d have given anything—nearly anything—to be able to say yes.
When she walked in Gav stopped drinking mid-swallow. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is the most beautiful woman I’ve seen since…since those country chicks crashed my eighteenth.’
Des told him he was crazy on both counts.
‘No way. I’m going to marry this one. Tonight’s the night.’
‘I thought yesterday was the night.’
‘That was til tonight.’ He slid off his chair towards her but she made a bee-line for a guy in pin-stripes, and slung a lazy arm around his neck. Gav kept walking right out the front door as the boys hooted their approval. So far, he thought, being eighteen and a day was turning out nearly as good as being eighteen.
They were getting ready to swim when Tyson pointed to her leg. ‘What’s that Grandma?’ A jagged strip of pigmentless skin over her kneecap. She remebered back past Norm and the kids and grandkids—this smallest one always with the questions—to a ballroom that had long since been knocked down. They’d danced all night and she’d understood, in his strong arms, things she’d never understood before.
They left the dance on his Vincent. He told her to hang on tight. They sped through the emptying streets without a care until the rain started. It was sudden. He hit wet tram-tracks on a corner, taking his back tyre from under them. She smacked into the kerb hard enough to split her knee. They’d laughed, even though her leg stung like billy-o and the bike’s cracked sump meant she’d have to finish the trip home alone by tram. They promised to meet at the dance the next week. But when her mother saw the state of her she forbade it, only half believing the story about falling on stairs. Lily never saw him again. She smiled at her grandson. ‘Just an old war wound. C’mon Ty. Last one in——.’
Lara knitted it for him even though she knew he’d go back to Clarice when her placement finished. It took longer than she’d hoped. By the time it was finished they’d already said their goodbyes, which was strange because they’d be seeing each other on campus and out and about. But she took it around anyway. Said it was just something she’d wanted to do for him. Leo seemed to like it, and when he put it on it did look good. She’d never have said he was ‘handsome’ before but the jumper really suited him. He said he wished he’d done something for her. All I have is this, he said, and he scooped her up and kissed her and the old charge flashed between them—the one they’d said they’d learn to live without.
Next morning she got up to make coffee and saw the note open near the kettle. I’m sorry Leo. I should have told you sooner… Lara wondered if that made her second-best. But when she took the cups in he had the jumper on and his big smile seemed to tell her not to worry.
I was in love the moment she moved next door. That car. Its chrome trim and two-tone paint. Like black-and-white TV romance. I admired its curves across the fence, and its cracking white-wall tyres. When she told me it was original inside I wanted to see for myself—the star-specked vinyl, the bench seat big enough to lie across. And more curves and more chrome. ‘I’m going down the coast tomorrow,’ she said. ‘D’you want to join me?’
The suspension slopped like warm treacle. The gearbox struggled, popping out of second and crunching into third. The old motor spluttered like an emphysemic grandfather. Driving it felt like cruelty. Then, as we threaded through the last of the suburbs, she reached across and flicked open the glove box. “Pick something.” There was Jerry Lee and the King, girl groups and doo-wop. And Wanda Jackson. ‘Perfect,’ she said, and taking the disk from me she forwarded to a favourite track. At the chorus she came in, her sweet exotic twang filling the cabin. Pulling in to her driveway at the end of the day I still thought I was in love. But not with her car. No not with her car.
For years before Daniella bought it, the Lester St place had been a share-house. By the time she moved in it was mid-summer. Vegetables were flourishing in the back yard and nectarines hung, plump and enticing, in heavy clusters from the tree in the corner. The tomatoes and beans wouldn’t have been planted until weeks after the auction. She felt guilty picking them.
Pinned to the noticeboard in the pantry she’d found a hand-written seasonal planting guide—meticulous notes added over the years. The tomatoes came out in February. She dug in manure, planting silverbeet after a couple of weeks. Her first harvest was in late March. She rang the Agent who’d handled the property. “I’ve got mail for them, do you have a forwarding address?” She drove that afternoon to the next suburb. Before she finished parking she’d spotted him. He was lanky and handled his spade with ease. His eyes flashed at her as she approached him. They were as deep green and seductive as the leaves in her basket.
He’d been strong and popular in a way—loud, jovial, the life of the party. But as thin as paint when it mattered. Felicia’s illness had been the final straw. She hadn’t seen it coming and it was like the dud prize on the lucky wheel that she’d been with him when it was diagnosed. He lasted two weeks, trying to work out what it was he should be doing for her. Then he went on a bender. Finished up in Sydney. It was the sort of thing he did all the time. But this time when he got back there was no one waiting to hear his stories. No one to laugh with him and slap his back.
He took flowers to the hospital. Her sister took them from him. “No you can’t see her. I’ll let her know you’re OK.” After that he’d gone to his mother’s for advice but she’d simply shaken her head. He realised he was lonely and started counting back the women, good women many of them, who had wasted their time on him. Suddenly forty seemed far too late to start growing up.
The bloke in the red shirt and paisley vest made a bee-line for Gemma as soon as the pre-lunch session finished. “He’s a magnificent thinker. Inspiring. Empowering. I feel I could take on the world. How’d you like to do it with me?” He flicked a business card from his wallet by way of introduction. Liam Jones, personal trainer and self-help expert.
Help yourself expert more like, she thought. “Listen I’m only serving the coffee. If you want to chat someone up try the chick in the kaftan over there, with the hoop ear rings and the sandals.” Gemma handed Liam the card she’d been given during the tea break. Fiona d’Souza – clairvoyance & mystic phenomena. “She knows your coming.” As Liam sized up Ms d’Souza across the room Gemma vowed she’d never again agree to work the annual Personal Growth Convention.
Alice was in Budapest. By the time she read Tyler’s text about the accident their father was in intensive care. So she sold her camera to an American student for the money for the cheapest ticket home. There was supposed to be a connection in Singapore but they bumped her onto a later flight. You should have read the small print, they told her. Alice cried and cried until they found her a seat. She had to run all the way to the gate to make boarding. Thick cloud-cover obscured her old hometown. Descending through it she imagined Tyler looking annoyed—cursing her for not getting a ‘normal’ ticket on a ‘normal’ flight. But when she came through customs she saw he was wearing a different expression. It was one she’d never seen on him before.
Tim knew he’d told one too many porkeys when he got to the top of the chairlift. She’d bought the story about the mission and hadn’t blinked when he’d said he’d sung in an underground rock band that had been big in Japan. He’d managed to pull off a decent soufflé after practicing for three days—said he’d mastered it working in an international hotel. That was all well and good, but he should never have claimed he could ski. He stared at the precipitous incline and considered altitude sickness as a last resort.
Claudia took one look at him. ‘I don’t know why you do it. All the bulldust, Tim. Forget it. I like you. OK?’ So they took the lift back down the mountain to the beginners slope with the wannabes and the kids and the weekend tourists. And they had a ball.