Skylark - a novel

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Chapter One

Billie

St. Cloud 2006

“My name is Billie May Skylark, and I’d like to send my manuscript in for consideration… it’s a fictional work, yes… no, not as yet. Sorry, can you hold for just one second?”

I take a breath and cover the mouthpiece with my hand, turning to one of my eighteen-month-old twins who is attempting to climb inside the dishwasher. “Sunny! Get out of there now, that is not a toy! Mommy is on the telephone.”

Grabbing the wriggling terror, I placate him with a cracker as I return to my phone call. “Sorry about that… no, that’s correct. I haven’t yet published a novel… no, I have had a few poems published, and I currently write a column… oh, ok… no, that’s quite alright; I understand. Thanks for your time.” I stick my tongue out at the receiver as I place it back into its cradle, wondering how it might be possible for a writer to ever get published when no one will look at your novel unless, duh, you’ve already published a novel.

“I give up!” I announce to the dishwasher; although I know that, really, I won’t.

The truth is that I may never get my book published, but I know, deep down, that even if I remain the frustrated, undiscovered writer forever, the simple act of writing has saved me. Amidst nappies, pureed foods, and tantrums, I manage to hold on to a hidden identity which allows me to believe I’m somehow more than the groundhog day pattern my life since babies has become. I tell myself, sometimes out loud whilst cleaning the highchair, soaking the laundry, or playing peek-a-boo for the zillionth time, I am also a writer, I am also a writer, I am also a writer.

“Sunny, sweetie, where’s Evie?” one of the twins is no longer in my peripheral vision, and this is always a bad sign. “Honey, where’s Evie?” Sunny gives me his dimply double-toothed smile and waddles away, wearing only a nappy and singlet. “Evie… Evie, where are you?”

As usual, I begin the triage search, starting with the places I know most likely to be the site of some awful accident. I race around the house calling her name, trying not to sound like a frantic freak of a mother. Did I close the door to the laundry? Are the baby gates on? Did I leave the garden gate open? Meanwhile, Sunny toddles around after me, giggling as though we are now in a big game of hide and seek.

Reaching the twins’ bedroom, I find the lower drawers of the tallboy open and every item of clothing and bedding on the floor. She’s been here, but she’s not here now. In the bathroom, rolls of toilet paper are unraveled, covering every surface. No baby, but I’m on the right track. Laundry door definitely closed. I exhale a breath of minor relief. Out into the front garden, still no sign, but the dog food dish has been emptied into the plant pots. Down the side lane to the backyard, I’m calling her name loudly now. “Evie, Evie, where are you?” Long grass itches bare legs as I run through the overgrown yard we never seem to find the time to care for.

Panic takes hold, changing in an instant what was irritation and mild concern to the icy chill of raw fear. If Evie has gotten this far down the yard, then she might reach the dilapidated fence… which leads directly through the bush to the cliff.

The yard is half a kilometer long, most of it thick with overgrown grass, the rest beyond the fence is dense bush. I had never thought it possible that an eighteen-month-old could make it this far down the yard, but kids surprise you every day. Shit, why was the baby gate to the garden unlocked?

This and a zillion other panicked, terror-stricken and self-flagellating thoughts bounce around my head as I tear through the last few meters to the fence. “Evie!” I scream this time, the pitch in my voice stifled by the heavy bush which waits beyond the fence. There is no sign of a baby; no sign at all.

“Billie! Hey Billie, over here.” I turn to the sound of the voice my chest heaving, overwhelmed by panic and the sprint through the long grass. Searching for the source, I shield my eyes from the glare of the midday sun.

“Jack, I’ve lost her, Evie’s gone.” His silhouette appears at the crest of the hill leading down to the fence, he is carrying something and I sink to my knees in relief.

“Here’s Mommy. Now, what do you guys think she’s doing down here?” Jack walks calmly toward me, and I open my shaking arms out to the giggling bundle of mischief he brandishes. I hold her wriggly body to mine as tightly as possible, relief sparking tears as I scold her lightly.

“Where have you been monkey? Mommy’s been looking everywhere for you.” She smiles and puts her thumb in her mouth, nuzzling into my breast as though it should still hold some sustenance. “Thank you Jack; where was she?”

He smiles down at us; Sunny is on his shoulders, tickling his ears. “I think maybe the dogs have burrowed a hole under the fence. She was in my garden pulling up the flowers.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I was on the phone for a few minutes, and then she was gone. I thought for a second…” I stall gesturing toward the fence behind me. “I’m a disaster. Women like me should be given compulsory birth control. I don’t know how to do this.”

“Yes, you do.” He puts a work-scarred hand under my elbow and guides me to my feet, Evie almost asleep in my arms, exhausted from her escapee adventure. “You just need a break.”

I take a breath and wipe my damp brow with the back of my hand, hair sticking to my forehead. “Thank you Jack, for everything.”

He smiles and we make our way back up through the long grass to my open French doors. All is as it was. I carry Evie to her cot where I pull up the rail, should she wake from slumber and decide on another expedition. Jack takes Sunny and lays his compliant little body down on the adjacent cot. We tiptoe from the room and I flop on to the sofa, wondering when life became so very tiring.

Jack returns with a glass of ice water, places it on the table, and tells me to have a rest. “I can see your halo glowing from here, Mr Kelly” I sigh. “My very own guardian angel right next door.”

He smiles, making for the door. “Have a nap; I’ll get that hole in the fence sorted this afternoon.” He leaves with our dog, Toby, trotting along at his heels, and I watch him go; a strong, solid, reliable frame. He stops, bends down to pat Toby’s head, then rubs his belly, turns briefly back toward my house and then is gone.

Jack Kelly is my neighbour here in St. Cloud, the South Pacific Island furthest from just about anything and anyone I have known before, a small dot on the map that is now our home.

To find St. Cloud, you might take a plane to Costa Rica then head south, down just past the equator line. Or you might head to Peru and travel north; St. Cloud lies somewhere in the expanse of blue ocean that lies between. We moved here shortly before the birth of our twins, and without Jack, the change might have been too much for me. Jack is a rock, always around with a calm word and a smile. He’s like the pied piper for animals and kids. Wherever he is, there’s bound to be a dog or two in tow, and whenever he’s here, the twins are laughing. Jack is low on the drama factor, and as I’m married to a guy like Evan, any relationship that doesn’t involve drama is welcome.

Being a single male in St. Cloud is a precarious position as there are, it seems, more women than available men. Jack keeps a low profile. He’s been burned before. I tell him it’s only a matter of time till one of those single ladies on the island manages to reel him in, but he isn’t interested. After meeting his ex-wife Claudia, I knew the reason why. I think after a few years with her, any good man would need at least a decade of celibacy. She’s a piranha with highlights and long legs, and on the few occasions I’ve seen her, I surmised that she’s the sort of woman who doesn’t like women.

They divorced two years ago, although Claudia seems to think it was more like two weeks ago. She tries to keep her talons in Jack’s life any way she can. The story goes (and here in St. Cloud, you quickly become privy to most stories) she trapped Jack into marrying her by pretending to be pregnant. Jack’s a good guy, old fashioned in a way and would have insisted on doing the right thing. Of course three months after the wedding, he discovered there was no baby but there you go. Jack’s a “believe the best in everybody” kind of a guy and made a go of things. They say he wanted a family and she didn’t, and well, the rest is history. It was a simple divorce; Jack gave her everything, and she now lives in a beach villa overlooking La Misere, St. Cloud’s most beautiful beach.

Jack built a house here on Frontiere Point on the opposite side of the island. His house is next door to us, although I’d say “house” is a stretch of the term. His “break-up build” is more of an open-plan man cave atop a large work shed; basic but functional.

Claudia’s penchant for expensive, soft furnishings and designer wallpaper ensured Jack will have a lifelong aversion to anything but the basic comforts. He maintains he doesn’t need much, and his studio room above the work shed reflects this housing: only a woodstove, bookshelf, radio, and sofa bed. Jack’s passion is boats, and he works day and night drawing, building, and restoring them in his work shed below his man shed, along with his two dogs, Louie and Bets, for company.

Closing my eyes, I let the heat sink into my bones. I stop fighting and let it soothe me into the hazy place between wakefulness and slumber. I can hear the sound of the ocean beyond the end of our yard and the constant buzz of insects. St. Cloud is always sleepy in the heat, but an undercurrent of activity thrives below the surface of its overheated community; it is a hive of people and life. A community in a bell jar.

Sleep comes quickly and I am soon lost in a dream. I am making a speech, thanking people, shaking hands and signing books, but it’s raining, and I realize someone forgot to put up a canopy. Words on pages run till everything is blank. I look down at myself and my literary demeanor has changed to mother coffee group attire; braless and in sweats with baby vomit down my front. Jack is in the crowd stifling a laugh and Evan stands, arms folded, embarrassed and disappointed.

Evan.

The telephone rings and rings, and the dream dissolves with the downpour. With half of me still at my dream book signing, I scramble for the handset only to hear the sound of two hungry cries from the bedroom. “Hello?” I sound pissed off because of course I am, the phone has pulled me from my so needed nana nap and woken the twins simultaneously. I clear my throat and answer again. “Hello?” More warmth in my tone.

“Hey baby, where were you? I was about to hang up.”

“Evan.” It’s always good to hear his voice. “I fell asleep with the twins, we’ve had a busy morning. How’s work?”

“Oh, you know; it’s good, but I’d rather be there sleeping with you.”

I hear the smile in his voice and return it with one of my own. Evan was born with the gift of the gab and as he speaks, his soft persuasive tone slowly pulls me from my sleepy funk. Since I have known him, he has always been able to sweet talk anyone, get himself or others out of a fix with words and charm, and somehow always win me over no matter how mad I might be. Evan is Irish with all the accompanying cheeky humor and charm you might expect. He is my weakness; dark haired, green-eyed, tall and lean, he was and is my first love. We are here, with our babies in St. Cloud because of him. I have followed Evan since we met: a journey equally satisfying and terrifying, depending on which day you ask me.

“When are you coming home?” The sound of the twins yelling for me gets louder every second I ignore them.

“I’m not sure sweetheart, I have some plans to finish before I cut out.”

I’m used to this. Evan’s job in Becketsvale (St. Cloud’s only city) means he leaves before the sun rises and generally returns home after the sun sets, usually smelling of a few local after work cocktails. He is happy in this new job, so I don’t make a fuss, even though the days are long without him. His happiness feeds mine.

“Do you think Evie can climb out of her cot yet?”

“How would I know?” He sounds vacant. “It wouldn’t surprise me.”

I hear a thump in the bedroom and a bang at the closed door. “I can’t believe it; she’s out! I gotta run Evan. Oh, and you have to do something about that old fence at the end of the yard. I thought Evie had gone off the cliff earlier.”

“You’ll turn yourself grey with all that fretting. It’s practically a kilometer’s hike. There’s no way they could get down there”.

“How do you know that? Evie is practically catching buses on her own!”

Evan laughs. “Go have beer baby; the twins are fine. I’ll see you later.”

I hang up, rolling my eyes. A beer is Evan’s answer to everything; a beer, for crying out loud!

I walk toward the source of the commotion and find Evie has climbed up and into Sunny’s cot; she has a crayon and is trying to draw on his dimpled cheeks. I shake my head and stifle a laugh. “What am I going to do with you two? You, my girl, are your Daddy’s daughter.” I lift curly-haired little Evie into the air as she giggles and charms me with her beaming smile. She is light and wiry, where Sunny is dimpled and chubby; he is fair while she is dark, and seeing them together, it is almost impossible to believe they can be related, never mind twins.

Baby gates secure and double-checked, we three head to the living room floor where I lie on my tummy with the twins and their toys, watching them play and intervening when one looks set to clobber the other with a building block. I love this, watching them together and seeing them explore and learn. I love their need for cuddles and reassurance and love that I am the one who can always give them that. I love all of this yet the voice that nags, “It isn’t enough” won’t leave me alone.

If my physical body were to reflect my lack of balance since the twin’s arrival, it would look like this: swollen feet, skinny legs, oversized milky boobs, and a head that is shrunk from lack of stimulation. A brain once of good size and function reduced to the size of a walnut. Maybe I should do a quick mirror check just to be sure this hasn’t actually happened yet; the head shrinking bit that is. The boobs, the feet; that’s all a given.

The air has changed, and a rare wave of cool rolls over the heat haze. My skin prickles with the unfamiliar sensation. In no time at all, a thunderclap sounds, and we gather at the windows to watch the show; St. Cloud hosts the most dramatic thunderstorms this time of year. The twins watch in awe as the dark sky is sliced with lightening, and for a split second, their wide eyes are bathed in white light. We count the seconds till the thunder rolls and they squeal in delight, burying their little heads in my lap as the booming noise shakes the sky.

Storms have always smelled like change to me; something coming, a warning to be ready, a signal to assume the position. It was a night not too dissimilar to this when my life course last jumped tracks, but I wasn’t ready. If it hadn’t been for that storm, I’m not sure how life might have worked out. But the thunder and lightning that night in London, the smell of change, and warning to be ready were for me, I just didn’t know it then. At the end of that stormy night was Evan, and I would wait for him in the rain then follow him to shelter.

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