All my siblings

She came to Dad’s funeral in a loose black dress. Mum didn’t know who she was. None of us did. Someone from work perhaps. There was a big crowd—he was that kind of bloke—so we thought nothing of it. But at the end of the service she sought me out. ‘You’re Jonathon, Dick told me all about you. I think we need to talk.’

It was the sort of thing that newspapers call a double life. She tried to tell me it wasn’t like that. Though Mum struggled—who could blame her—his will made it clear. Maybe the hardest part was that I liked her. Miriam was more than a piece of fluff he’d had on the side. She was warm and generous and thoughtful. And I was glad I’d come to know her. As I rocked my tiny half-sister to sleep I thought about Mum and Des and Conrad, cut off from me now and missing all this. And I thought about Dad—anger and love and pity and wonder. Maybe she knew him better than any of us at the end.

A fair price

The story is told of a nobleman’s daughter who demanded precious gifts from her many suitors.

Her mean reputation spread. The number of suitors dwindled. She longed for more of the fine things they brought.

A merchant visited with samples of silks of unimaginable beauty. ‘Do you have more?’ she asked.

‘For a fair price. I know a place where one can get as much as one desires.’

Her eyes lit up. ‘Will you take me there?’

They sailed to a town in the tropics—a journey of several months, during which she resisted the young merchant’s tender advances, her thoughts only of the riches they would find.

In the shacks of that place poor families toiled to grow, dye, spin and weave the finest silks. ‘You may have what you please,’ he told her, ‘for a fair price.’

‘I don’t know what that price is,’ she said.

‘I will show you.’

And the next morning, when she woke, he was gone.

A year later the merchant returned. The nobleman’s daughter was now wedded to a weaver, working long hours in return for the meager roof he provided. ‘Take me away,’ she pleaded.

‘For a fair price,’ the merchant replied.

An incomplete arpeggio

Jade had been working on that one song for a week. It always seemed just another tweak away. It was the chorus that had her stuck. And it was the chorus she needed to get right. That’s what she’d started with—those secret words about how she felt about Bryce. All those emotions knotted together. But without a tune to support them they were nothing.

Around noon he popped his head in. As a teacher, a mentor, he’d always been so happy to lend a hand. He was generous in a way that other men she’d  known had never seemed to be. It made the years between their ages seem such a minor thing.

As he sat on the piano stool beside her she quickly covered the chorus with the verse pages, not wanting him to see what she’d written. He didn’t need the music. He’d heard her struggling with it for days. ‘Try this.’ He played, almost exactly as she had but with something extra in the arpeggio sections.

‘Turn them into triplets,’ he told her. ‘Sometimes it just takes a note in between to spark what you already have.’

Still

Bang. The lift goes dark, drops then stops again. An emergency light flicks on. Five of us stalled in yellow half-light.

‘Anyone claustrophobic?’ It’s Business Suit. He got on at 5 with the Stilettos but I don’t think they’re together.

‘A little. I’ll be OK.’ Bicycle Girl looks nervous.

The student guy who got on with me at 4 passes her a water bottle.

Silence.

Then Business Suit sidles across to the young guy. ‘How’s your love life, Son?’

Creep, I think. His breath smells of beer and chips.

Student says it’s nothing much.

”You got your eye on someone?’

‘Yeah. I guess.’ Soon he’s telling us about a girl with purple hair and we want it to work out for him.

Bicycle Girl gives him some gentle advice. She’s in a new relationship—she’s not sure if it’ll last.

‘Gotta give it a go,’ I say. And before I know it I’m talking about Ben and the kids.

Stilettos says she’s between flings. ‘Nice ones—you know—but nothing long-term. We’re swapping stories when we hear the whimpering. Business suit is in the corner, wallet open, stroking a group of photos in their plastic pocket frame.

Fourth time lucky

My three lovers are dead now, and I’m told I should stop at that, and that if I don’t I will be watched, as if the pain of having lost them, one after another, is not enough. Lance and I were married for five years. On the morning of his death I cooked breakfast for him. Nothing unusual in that. At work, three hours later, he took a turn. The doctors did what they could. It was not enough.

Frank went in his sleep. Much more peaceful. But to wake next to him—it is something I will never forget.

Vitas was slow. I watched him go downhill for months. No sign at all of a cause. It was as if his body was unwinding.

That should be enough, they say.

But I don’t think I should stop. I should find someone who trusts me. Someone who will not judge me.

And you seem so honest. So willing. When I opened up to you about my tragedy you did not shy away as others have. I have never sought to hide my past. I will not hide it from you now. I will devote myself to you.

The midnight oil

Leon had called home. ‘Don’t wait up. Give Jasmine a hug for me.’

Now he paced in the midnight office half-light. There was nothing for it this time. Sitting again he flicked to the last page of the merger contract, scratched his lip with the blunt end of his pen—a plain ballpoint, unworthy of the task—then signed.

By noon she’d have gone through everything. She’d own him. He wanted to swallow every breath that said it was the right thing to do—for his employees, their families, the investors who’d backed him.

He and Felicity could have been partners ten years before. He’d shown her his corporate plan, his products—a whole new model for the industry. Business and pleasure. When you’re fresh out of university and ready to take on the world it’s hard to tell the difference. But she teamed up with Dave Radley, the intellectual minnow in final year—but Dave had family money. They’d married and divorced since. And their company had grown on the back of Leon’s thinking.

On the way down in the lift he composed a text. ‘All water under the bridge now, Fee. We should seal the deal, L.’

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Midnight oil

Leon had called home. ‘Don’t wait up. Give Jasmine a hug for me.’

Now he paced in the midnight office half-light. There was nothing for it this time. Sitting again he flicked to the last page of the merger contract, scratched his lip with the blunt end of his pen—a plain ballpoint, unworthy of the task—then signed.

By noon she’d have gone through everything. She’d own him. He wanted to swallow every breath that said it was the right thing to do—for his employees, their families, the investors who’d backed him.

He and Felicity could have been partners ten years before. He’d shown her his corporate plan, his products—a whole new model for the industry. Business and pleasure. When you’re fresh out of university and ready to take on the world it’s hard to tell the difference. But she teamed up with Dave Radley, the intellectual minnow in final year—but Dave had family money. They’d married and divorced since. And their company had grown on the back of Leon’s thinking.

On the way down in the lift he composed a text. ‘All water under the bridge now, Fee. We should seal the deal, L.’

Rodeo

We’d had years on the circuit, playing rodeos and country shows, town halls and festivals. Years of fighting and splitting and getting back together. Always the song. I told him he could sing anything else to anyone else but that song was just for me. It had been a big hit when he needed one. It saved him in many ways, and it still got the biggest response from fans. Even tonight it sounded as good as when I first heard him sing it. Because when he sings it you hold your breath.

The record company had called me in. That song you sent us. We want Clem to have it. Sure I said. Then they shoved a paper in front of me and next thing he’s got it all right. By the time the record came out—words and music: Clem Mullins—we were together and that song was never going to let us be apart for long.

Now I’m alone while a sweet country girl with fame in her eyes shares a bottle with him. I drop the needle on the crackling track.

holding you in my heart til morning

Red

I’d do anythin’ for ’er. I keep the yard good—clean up after m’self. So the business about not bein’ romantic—well, it’s rough.

So I send ’er out for a days shoppin’. When she’s gone I start cleanin’. The house looks like those magazine photos, it’s so tidy.

After lunch I set the good table with the good plates, then I get the oven on. I’ve got some stuff from the deli—‘cordon bleu’, heat an’ eat.

About five she’s back. Had a good day at the shops, an’ when she sees the house an me all fresh shaved she says, ‘Gordon, what a surprise.’

I pour her champagne an’ we eat an’ she’s sayin’ how nice ev’rythin’ is.

After coffee she says we oughtta maybe not watch any telly. So I bring out the box.

She unties it, looks in, then laughs. ‘Red!’

‘Pretty fancy,’

She just walks to the wardrobe an’ I reckon I’ve blown it. But she gets a different box—the one from our weddin’—an’ she says, ‘maybe these instead, eh?’

She puts ‘em on an, blimey she looks good.

An’ she’s says, ‘Come here Gordon. You’re all the romance I’ll ever need.’

Peeling away

I came across a lonely billboard with its top layer half peeled off. It read, Jesus Christ, pure indulgence. I went in search of its meaning.

Traditional churches turned me away. The religious fringes beckoned. The image of the deity in sacred robes and black stockings drove me on. Drawn at last to the town of Parchment. I came to the Church of the Angel of Redemption.

You were coming down as I was going up. Those legs, those stockings, the feline grace as you took the steps, half sideways in your heels. You were the one. Pure indulgence I repeated. I turned.

When I caught up to you, in the afternoon sunshine, on the stubbly main road of Parchment, you told me I’d been right to follow. ‘He works in mysterious ways,’ you said. We went away together. For three years we built our life around your strangeness. But this morning you were gone.

Suddenly adrift, I caught a bus back to the place where I’d read the message that had guided me to you. But all that remained, beside the highway, were the last shredded pieces of something too faded to mean anything at all.

Miss Lina’s book

The weather closed in and there was no prospect of the kids doing sport. Being stuck with them all afternoon and the grey all over made her think of the book.

‘OK, kids we’re going to do a project…’

Later that night she shuffled the papers. The many loves of 2J. Prakash loved soccer and ice cream. Lindy loved cats. Little Ken, the rough and tumble kid from the big family loved his big sister. They all loved hearts—the curly symbols proliferated.

She took them to the study and turned on her scanner. Half an hour later she was adding this years pages, printed on clean white paper, into the book of love. Then she put on her coat, took her umbrella from the hall cupboard, and, with a quick fluff of her hair, headed down the street to Manny’s and the stool at the dark end of the bar.

Rescued

Search crews found him on a rock ledge trying to sing. It was something else he’d forgotten. That and his past—growing up, old girlfriends and all the years with me—wiped clean.

At first it was a tragicomic farce. ‘Robert, you say?’

I’d nod

‘I don’t remember.’

‘I know darling,’ I’d say. ‘I know.’

Later, when he understood, he’d get annoyed if he thought I was trying to feed him memories—old songs, photos, anything. So I banished them. The house became blank in their absence.

Until, on my way home one evening, I detoured via the shops. I tried on shoes, bought new stockings and sampled perfume offered by a girl with a rock-hard smile.

When I walked into the house he sat up. I’d taken to pecking him on the cheek as if he remembered. As I did he breathed long and hard, smelling the new scent. Suddenly memories began cascading from him.

They weren’t of me.

I took them, regardless.

Aphrodite’s sons

They come every day to the club, which is nothing but an empty shop with laminex tables and split vinyl chairs, travel posters on the walls and a coffee machine in the corner. Out the back there’s a fridge, a sink, a microwave and the cupboard where they keep the cards. They sit for hours dealing winning hands and loosing hands and sage advice, because here they are kings. They could be under olive trees in dappled light and it would be no better.

In the afternoon the ouzo comes out. Christos, who owns the place, pours. And then, because he’s a storyteller, he tells the story of the judgement of Paris. And they laugh and say they’d choose the same. Paris got it right. The love goddess wins every time.

Then Christos says, ‘That Hera, Queen of the gods, she’d be too much a…’ and he gestures. Ball-breaker. ‘And who’d choose brains when you could have…’ he rubs his trousers like a pop star. They are young bucks again. They laugh, slap each other, down their drinks and call for more. And they are kings in their smoke-stained castle. And they know everything about love.

In my mother’s attic

The typed letters were in a box in the roof, all in order—Dad back from the war, wooing her with sweet stories when his mind had been full of darkness. It made me wish I’d known him. But he’d ‘done it’ as the family said, when I was five. Selfish, they said. These weren’t selfish words.

An hour passed before Heather popped her head up. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I found these. Mum’s letters. From Dad.’

‘Dredge it up later. I could do with a hand.’

So I boxed them again and took them home.

It was different for Heather. She’d had more years with Dad.

As I read the letters, I felt as if we’d been given extra moments together. Some were gentle, some sad, some desperate. Some beautiful and tender. And in the middle a small bunch written by hand—so intimate I felt heat rise on my neck as I read. He’d signed these, Your Darling Forever, T.

It was my secret until, months later, Heather asked. So I told her.

‘You idiot,’ she said. ‘He couldn’t write. Too shaky. He typed everything.’

‘Everything?’

‘Clickety, clickety. Drove us half mad.’

Bringing shame

We waited until ten before taking the ute up the back lane. Mum would be home in two hours but Dad would be gone all day and the boys rarely came back home before evening.

Lee and I threw boxes and bags from the balcony—clothes, books, CDs, keepsakes. While Johnny finished packing we went back for the stereo and computer. We were putting them under the tarp when I remembered the soft-toys under my bed. Lee raced up to get them.

The dull suburban drone was broken by Robbo’s Falcon pulling in. I screamed for Lee. The car door slammed shut. Footsteps up to the front door. A key in the lock.

Lee looked over the balcony. Robbo shouting. Running up the stairs. Next thing Lee just vaulted. Landed with a whack next to me. I heard his ankle bones shattering. As Robbo roared from my window we hobbled to the car—Johnny had the engine going. I’d been so distracted I hadn’t noticed what Lee was carrying. He handed me Scruffy, my first bear, kissed me and said maybe we’d better swing past emergency on our way out of town.

Mourning

Denise started crying in public. It could happen to her any time that she was out by herself. One moment she’d be in the queue to buy groceries. The next she’d be shedding quiet rolling tears like spring rain.

She told no one. The only people who knew were checkout attendants and fellow commuters and passers-by. One of the mums from school saw her hunched over near the flexiteller one day but Denise made up a story about her sick father. Said she’d be fine. Thanks

Eventually the crying became her new secret. It replaced John in those parts of her day-to-day life where that’s what he had been.

Pete knew nothing about either. All he knew was she’d started sleeping in the guest room.

She saved her tears for outside the house where the loneliness was greatest. But she couldn’t tell if hers were tears of grief. Did she cry for John or for herself?