Laura had always been the forgetful type. Just that morning she’d misplaced her keys. They were still missing but she’d found a spare set she’d forgotten she had.
She blinked as she scanned the carpark. His and hers matching convertibles had seemed such a fun idea back when she’d been married to Dan, but it was impossible to pick a sports car out now with so many tall SUVs.
After twenty minutes she finally spotted it and headed for home in an ugly mood. It turned to fiery anger when she found another woman’s stockings in the glove box, where her sunglasses should have been.
She gunned up the driveway and barreled into the house. ‘What the hell are these, and what are they doing in our car?’
Phillip looked up, puzzled. ‘They’re stockings, Darling. I thought the car wasn’t going to be ready til 5.’
She remembered the bus ticket in her jeans pocket. Back at the shopping mall Dan stared, hands on hips, at a pink VW where he felt sure his Alfa should have been.
Every afternoon she would sit by the lake in the palace grounds and have him brush her mane of hair. He was so much gentler than her handmaiden, who tugged through the knots, admonishing her if she complained.
Sometimes, when he’d brushed out every tangle, she’d ask for a plait. He’d work methodically, brushing as he went, talking all the time. Unless she wanted to talk to him, for in time he became her confidante.
She was soon to be married to a foreign prince. As he brushed she talked of the chill the nobleman’s touch sent through her. And he told her of his regret that she would be leaving. She asked him to plait her hair.
He was carrying a ribbon on which he’d written words of love. He secretly wove it into the braid. She could have had him punished for such impertinence. But he heard nothing from her. Until days later. She asked him to join her at the lake.
That afternoon she brought scissors and the kind of wig that was the fashion of the time. After brushing and plaiting she had him cut her tresses short. She told him to keep the rope of hair to remember her by. To stop it fraying she tied it with a ribbon covered in words.
Every morning when I wake you’re beside me sleeping. The idea of it still astonishes me. That I should be with you. I wake and reach towards you, to whatever skin is closest. I touch it delicately so as not to break your sleep. Just as I do on this strangest of mornings. We are far from home. My hand alights on your shoulder.
How can I tell you how I feel? I try but often I just sound creepy. I tell you how how I long to feel you against me. How I never want to leave you. I sound like I’m desperate. But you understand.
For years I’ve borne the weight of your one sadness. I’ve watched the pain of your not becoming a mother.
But now we’re here in this distant room and the little girl who’ll rely on us breathes quietly at last in her cot.
When I brush your skin this morning you stir. You’re already awake. We slide into the interlocked embrace we know so well. It seems a part of each of us—this thing of arms and legs and whispered words. Warmth and belonging. I tell you, clumsily as usual, exactly how I feel.
You say, ‘I know,’ but this morning it is different. We watch her bedclothes’ tiny rise and fall.
Horizontal rays warmed the chill. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to wake in the bush.
I pulled on a loose t-shirt and stuffed my feet into hiking boots. Riley wasn’t hard to find. He was at the swimming hole. I knelt behind him, wrapped my arms across shoulders that were still unfamiliar. We’d got together after a year-long friendship. Within weeks, his mother had died. She’d been very ill, in constant pain, so I was surprised how hard he’d taken it. There was much about him I didn’t yet understand. Quietly, alone in that wilderness, he began to explain.
‘I hardly knew her.’
‘Mum. She adopted me out. I found her again by chance three years ago. The Petersons were Mum and Dad til he left. Mum—Nel Peterson—was a hard woman. Told me she wasn’t my mother when I was a teenager. Kicked me out when I was eighteen.’
He’d been engaged a couple of times too, he said. It never worked out.
He was warning me in a way.
I said, ‘Riley, I really like you. Let’s see how we go.’
I could have held him or kissed him. Instead I peeled out of the shirt and waded into the deep part of the stream, where I beckoned him to join me.
Amelia Rousseau was known throughout delta country, and all the way to the upper reaches, as the River Queen. A story is told—perhaps it’s true—of how the river became her domain.
As a young girl she’d been headstrong, always wanting to get out onto the water. Her father, an unpleasant man, grew to resent his troublesome daughter—even more so when she began attracting the attention of the menfolk of riverside villages.
So, drunk and out of luck one evening he gambled her hand to a brute who dealt crooked cards and bad gin in a two-bit foothills town.
Amelia made the most of this distasteful arrangement, turning the failing moonshine still into a lucrative business. Improved liquor and her way with men and words meant sales soared. The couple travelled to the navigable limits of the river’s tributaries to sell the stuff.
In a shanty way off from anywhere they came across her father, panning for gold. She plied both he and her husband with her finest whisky. Then, in the middle of the night, she crept out to the river. She sank her father’s boat with a shot through the boards before motoring downstream a free woman, rich on the lust of the men of those parts for hard liquor and a certain kind of female.
In the four months before setting out Will had lost everything he valued. Colleen had left after an argument. For a while she’d call—tell him the door was still open, she just needed sort-out time. But the factory closed while she was sorting out and the Will she thought she wanted was hard to find in the haze of self pity he dived headlong into. Speed and booze. Street fights he was bound to loose. Every macho indulgence that stopped him having to work his way out. Until he missed his rent and his landlord changed the locks.
Now he was high above a lonely road in a talkative stranger’s truck. ‘I had this chick in ‘ere last week got out at Mallory. No one ever stops at Mallory so I says, “What’re you runnin’ from,” an’ she says, “The usual.”
‘”What’s that?” I says
‘”Love gone wrong.”
‘”You gonna be alright?” I says.
‘She’s got a job in a roadhouse, she says. “Right as summer rain.” I ain’t ever heard anyone say it that way. Summer rain, she says. Ha. Strange.’
But Will had heard it. She’d got it from her grandmother. Said it all the time. ‘How far to Mallory,’ he said.
‘Blimey, not you too. Ah well. No accountin’g for taste I s’pose.’
‘Hey, if you’re awake give me a call.’ On community radio it really didn’t matter what you said at four in the morning. ‘I’m Cray B. and you’re all asleep.’ Cray cued up some 70s excess that took an entire side of an old 12-inch. He looked at his watch. Slugged cold coffee ruefully. The phone rang.
Cray jumped. Nobody ever called except a couple of his mates and they wouldn’t be listening this late. ‘Cray B. on Your Music Radio, 105.3.’
‘Cray B. Hi.’ It was a girl’s voice. That was enough to shake the tiredness from him. ‘I love your show.’
‘Yeah, I’ve got something you ought to play.’
That would be my luck, he thought. Just another wannabe star with a tinny demo they think’s gonna launch them. Still the voice was nice. For a major music nerd that was a good enough start. ‘Well send it in and I’ll have a listen.’
‘You could listen now.’
‘I’m outside the studio.’
‘What. Here. Now. I’ll.Wait. Wait there.’
By the time he opened the door he was a little more composed. Not for long. There was Marcie Kingston, his year-ten girlfriend. No braces. No pimples. All class. And in her hands were three albums of classic soul he’d leant her a decade ago.
There’s a spot in the subway where the acoustics are perfect and the cold blowing down the stairs makes people wonder if they need to be in such a hurry. The subway busker knows where to stand. He puts his bag at his feet and begins to play. Smooth chords echo off square pink tiles. His mellow voice follows them down. He plays and waits. She’ll be by soon. She’ll drop a dollar and smile and most likely say, ‘nice day,’ or, ‘morning.’ Then she’ll walk on.
The subway busker turns his collar up against the wind. Starts another song. Soft rock is best for this work-a-day crowd. He nods to each eye that catches his. The cold plays havoc with his tuning. He’s waiting. Remembering her words. ‘I love this song. Play it every morning for me. Please.’ Her face so sad and grateful.
8:25—he sees the crowd from her train at the turnstiles. The first chords ring out. The verse talks of dreams and things that cannot be. The chorus, in a key that suits his voice, tells of persistence and faith.
She smiles as she passes, drops her coin into his bag and thinks, as she does each morning, of her late husband. She pays to grieve. No one will know.
Leon blew cool and slow. Phoebe hot and fast. Or growling low when the wind changed and clouds rolled in and everything turned dark. Leon and Phoebe together—dynamite.
Their three-week run created quite a buzz, but now it was over. They waited backstage for Charles. He was playing downtown with Mitch Stringer. Mitch could open doors they’d been trying to bust through.
Charles rocked in at three. Mitch followed, a slinking tall neon weasel. One look said he was up about ten miles in the stratosphere.
He started playing. The Last Post, like a lone bugler. And things got wild—a session made in heaven and in hell. Mitch’s horn, as sharp as a buzz-saw. Charles’s brushes working the skins like lovers’ fingertips. Leon on trombone, sliding through the edges of uncharted notes. Bill Majors, who ran the place, jumped onto piano.
Phoebe downed a straight gin and began scatting behind Mitch’s slick lead. Pretty soon they’d made a world between them. Everyone backed off so the sparks could fly. Though it was the best of nights for Leon he could see the wind changing and knew he was losing Phoebe to the Count.
At six Bill said he’d have to close up. Outside, another world was starting up. Leon walked into it alone, blinking at the sun.
Hart flicked on the headlights. He let Lucille sleep, her head against the window. The road in front lit up like a slick ribbon. Tyres thrummed. Bald rubber on patched blacktop. Their world was a roadside passing by.
At half past ten a lonely neon drew them in. ‘Wake up, girl. Time to eat.’
She eyed a payphone near the pumps. ‘I’ve gotta make a call.’
She’d be phoning Frank. Asking forgiveness, most likely. Always the wrong way round.
No matter where Hart took her she’d still give Frank a chance.
Through the window he watched her talking. The jukebox played the blues—harmonica bemoaning the rain beginning to fall. He saw her legs buckle slightly. She let the receiver hang and ran to the bathroom. By the time she swung through the café door she’d powdered away fresh tears and old bruises—they’d been turning grey to brown. Hart handed her a cup. If only she’d give him a chance he could be good for her. Two plates arrived; eggs, bacon, thick buttery toast. In half an hour they’d be back on the road. Lazy licks of indolent guitar filled the room. A voice like gravel and mud.
By morning they’d be rumbling through sugar country, walls of cane either side, mountains up ahead, blue-green in the distance.
I cannot revisit every moment that may have been misjudged. I cannot change what’s done so that it never was done. And if I could, would I?
For her perhaps. She told me once how low she’d been. Sisters shouldn’t bear such burdens for each other. She said she’d even thought, at the worst of times, about not going on. Neither courage nor cowardice had stopped her. But pride. I loved that most about her.
I’d been young and nothing had seemed to matter. And I wanted him to love me, even if he was hers. Perhaps more because of that—some vindication for every time I’d been ‘little sister’ to her grown up ways.
So I seduced him, expertly, though it was a skill I’d never practised. It was in me, in my sex, to do it. And when he talked about regret I seduced him again. Three times until he told her everything. We spoke little for many months. But years have worn away the animosity. We’re sisters again. And me with failing kidneys now needing her like never before. And she, as if she’d pulled herself out of the mire of my betrayal just for me, now a lifline for my desires.
What might have been. So nearly the architect of a double tragedy tinged with justice.
Honor rolled over, kicked at the doona. Shane was breathing quietly as usual. Her demons were hers alone. It had been five years since the thing with Cleo. He’d said it had been a mistake. Everything about their lives together now was positive. Every daytime hour she counted the blessings of their being together. But sometimes at night the memories—all anger and sadness and confusion—pushed back. It would have been different if she could have walked away—but Cleo wasn’t someone she could so easily turn from. So she’d been a sisterly sister through every family gathering and every celebration, even if her heart wasn’t in it. But what a twist to have to be Cleo’s saviour now. They’d be taking one of Honor’s kidneys in a week—a perfect match. She didn’t exactly begrudge it. She and Cleo had grown up together, after all, and Len was a great guy. They were hoping to start a family together. He deserved the years with his wife that only Honor’s kidney could provide. So Honor would guard her silence again—twist her feelings into a knot no one else could see. She’d carry it through life, alongside the admiration of all and sundry for an act of selfless love she would know was no love at all.
Lady Pennington disliked Verdi. She scanned the boxes for something more interesting. The usual uninspiring lot. The Duchess was looking well considering her troubles. There was Lord Arthur with his daughters, the eldest alone—young Martinson had left for the academy. And Mrs Cartwright in her American coat looking all out of sorts. Some people never mastered graceful boredom.
There were the Burton-Shaws’ with their wilful daughter. Lady Pennington remembered the girl’s unseemly boisterousness. A young man was by her side now. Surely a new beau, his hand in hers, as brazen as country bumpkins. The Lady looked closer. He seemed both foreign and familiar. French, perhaps. That would be typical of the girl. He appeared well connected. There was a certain carriage, a way of being in the world that set people apart. She felt sure she’d met him. Perhaps at Ascot.
Clare Burton-Shaw leant close to her French lover. ‘She’s trying to place you. Look at her screwed up face.’
Mark Parker, Lady Pennington’s former Master of Horses, hazarded a glance towards his Ladyship, so caught up in haughty self-righteousness. To the Burton-Shaws it was all no more than a delicious game. Parker had happily joined in.
Clare waited until Lady Pennington was watching then took his face and kissed him with an open hungry mouth.
It had always been assumed they’d marry. Two acrobat families combined—Marjetke and Leo, the next generation. From the time they could walk they’d been groomed for the trapeze. Soon they’d be the stars of the act.
To leave the circus would be to leave her family—she knew that. And she did love flying. She loved his strength when he caught her. The certainty of being held safe, of staring down gravity’s inevitable pull. But she didn’t love him.
It was fine when there was no one else. But an impresario with smooth fingers beneath gold bands had been lavishing her with gifts a circus girl might never have expected. At first it had been flattering. She’d laughed at his persistence. But after a time the trinkets came to represent a world outside the big top. Now he had offered to take her away.
Though she imagined packing her meagre things for a new life, she would have stayed if Leo’s jealousy hadn’t surfaced.
‘We should do the triple spin without the net,’ he’d said.
She knew what that meant. She’d owe him every waking day. He’d have a power that trust alone could never justify.
So she was waiting near the town limits, scanning the road for the Bentley’s headlights.
She may have been studying literature but Rebecca’s favourite books were ones you could judge by the cover—sin and seduction, murder and intrigue.
Like Slave to Desire—a coquettish brunette, bodice heaving under the glare of a single streetlight. Her flatmate shrieked when she saw it. ‘She looks just like you.’
The blurb sounded creepily familiar. Rebecca started reading.
Like the Betty in the story she’d become infatuated with her lecturer. Recently she’d heard stories of his womanising. For Betty the realisations had come too late. Another student had disappeared. Now she was a scarlet woman, a jealous lover and a suspect.
Rebecca slammed the book shut. She ran to the night market intending to slip it into the bookseller’s stall from which it had come. But before she could, there was a voice behind her. ‘So this is where pretty students spend their evening. Admirable. All these books. But sometimes…’
She knew the line before he’d said it. …there are better places than this to spend the night—I’ll show you things you’ll remember forever.’
Her next words came as if she were reading them from the yellowed pages. ‘And there are things that I can show you.’ And even though she knew how the story ended she threw the book down and went with him.