“Some people walk through the rain, others just get wet.”
Briny smells of salt, seaweed and dead fish hang in the still air. Broody low clouds gather; a weighty angst of inky grey. Jack likes the stillness before the storm; acceptance and inevitability. The earth’s wait for coming chaos.
There’s been a storm every day now for weeks, frequent downpours that deluge the island. It’s the rainy season, a time of year where sunshine must be grasped and held whenever it appears. It won’t stay for long and no-one expects it to. Here in St. Cloud, islanders quickly come to respect the weather and accept it can’t be controlled. Weather in St. Cloud is not personified; hated or gossiped about like an unfaithful neighbour. The weather just is. Jack is used to working in the rain. He likes it.
Here at the dock the stillness brings a subtle change in gear. People work quickly; gathering in the day’s catch, fixing boat moorings and readying vessels for the potential buffeting of the coming storm. Dusk is approaching, and with the dark another downpour.
Raife sighs, struggling to keep pace with Jack’s stride. “What’s the hurry?”
Jack glances over, “I want to get the wood loaded into the truck before the rain.”
“What did you do before your man-slave Raife arrived?”
He smiles at the irony. “I managed.”
“Never used to manage without me.”
“Maybe - when I was fifteen.”
Raife’s eyes are on the water. “Hell of a long time ago.”
Silent agreement passes in a nod, acknowledgement of how things were and how different they are now. But it’s not just time. Time doesn’t make decisions and wear the repercussions; people do. Jack does, and so does Raife, but for now they walk side by side over the rough boards of the dock, happy to blame the present on time and its disrespectful passing.
The wood has been shipped and waits dockside, delivered by boat yesterday. The only downside of St. Cloud’s isolation, as far as Jack can see, is the inaccessibility of certain supplies and the cost of shipment. There are materials, wood types and tools he can’t get here. The trip to pick up shipped goods at the docks is a regular one when he has a boat undergoing reclamation.
He doesn’t skimp. He could do it differently, substitute wood and fixtures, but Jack has always had vision; knowledge of what each boat will become and he won’t compromise. It’s why his work is sought after and commissions regular. It’s the reason he’s able to make his living this way. He is an artist and a craftsman. Vision and construction give him equal pleasure.
As the first fat raindrop descends the brothers have only just begun lifting and loading planks on to Jacks truck. There’s no real rush, the wood won’t spoil, it’s ready for the ocean; the rain a tepid rehearsal for life ahead. People instigate rush. They hurry to avoid another downpour, hustling as though this rain brings more than sodden clothes and damp hair. As though the downpour is irreversible and they’ve forgotten that eventually everything dries.
Dark skies exhale in collective relief as rain falls. Light fades, the sun lost behind watery clouds. Planks on the dock hiss and creak with steam as warm rain soaks aged wooden walkways.
Jack works methodically, lifting, carrying and resting each plank on the truck bed to be bound and transported back to the work shed. Raife’s actions are urgent, anxious in the heavy rain. Jack stops momentarily, eyes closed, face raised to the damp heavens, revelling in the pleasure of warm rain on hot, tired skin. Raife dodges the drops like each movement this way or that might somehow despite the odds, keep him dry.
Soon the truck is loaded with mahogany planks, colouring deeper and darker with the rain. This will be their permanent colour once sealed and finished as the keel and hull, a rich, ruddy brown, hard and dense, naturally resistant to decay and marine borer. Jack loves to work with mahogany. The work is tough and refined skill is required but the results are always worth it. It will give his boat a timeless quality both aesthetically and practically.
Quiet and sullen, Raife bangs the last plank into place and circles the truck, slamming the passenger door as he gets in. Jack ties the tarp, covering the planks and securing them to the truck bed. With a hand he bangs the side of the truck to signal the job complete and hops into the cab beside Raife, whose arms are folded, his gaze fixed out past the dock and beyond the line of ocean.
As Jack turns the ignition the sound of the engine is barely audible amidst the drumbeat of rain on the roof. In the ferocity of the downpour people have disappeared. Streets and sidewalks are empty. Signs of life gone, vanishing in perfect synchronicity, gone to ground until the rain eases.
Inside the steamy windows of bars and cafes, proprietors will be serving quickly, making the most of the influx of business before the sun returns. This weather imparts recklessness: people make impetuous purchases and linger over late lunches that extend into cocktail hour. Quick stops for shelter turn into boozy afternoons and impulsive retail therapy.
Jack drives on slowly through the deserted streets, bright coloured signage now blurred watercolours of words and images. St. Cloud will always be home. This place and these people have always brought him comfort.
For a time, it might have been easier to run away, to start again like Raife, but he stayed. He stayed while others left. Some travellers returned home later, their understanding of the paradise they’d grown up in freshly formed. Others stayed away, happy to sacrifice the tropics for anonymity in big cities in busier parts of the world.
Jack had meant to travel, he’d planned to. But after the trouble, after Raife left, then Joseph and Amandine, he’d felt himself begin to slide. He knew then that to leave would be the end. He’d really screw up and never come back. Here in St. Cloud he’d let himself slide alright, but never off the edge. Here he had friends and they’d always been there; through the drunken years, the toxic marriage and the rest. If he’d left home to escape he’d have been a drifter forever.
He turns to Raife, glancing at his brother’s profile; composed and rigid. The cool edge of distance overpowers the intimacy of the cab. Jack remembers the night in LA; the fight, Raife’s vulnerability and how, after Jack had fought for him that distance had gone. They were brothers, a flashback to childhood, them against us, doing what it took for your brother, your blood. That same blood is the only thing that unites them now.
Back in St. Cloud, Raife’s hard edge had resurfaced, a protective layer to keep out people and the past. And it works. No-one gets in and he lets nothing out. But it keeps him drifting and, as far as Jack can see, Raife has no anchor.
“I can’t go back.”
Raife’s words are spoken quietly, his eyes fixed on the rain smeared window. Jack doesn’t answer and Raife turns to face him, “I can’t go back and see her like that.”
Jack nods, eyes focused on the road ahead.
“I just don’t know.” Raife lowers his head, hands twisting in his lap. “I don’t know how I’ll be, what I’ll do seeing her like that.” His voice fades and the rain beats harder.
“We have to.”
“Why didn’t you tell me how bad she was?”
“I didn’t realise myself until I went home.” Jack exhales heavily, “I hadn’t been back in a while.” His knuckles tighten on the wheel. “It had been too long, I should have gone home before. Jess told me she was worried about her but I didn’t realise how bad it was.”
“Why the hell has everyone let it go?”
“No-one let it go Raife. Don’t start judging, where the hell have you been?”
Raife lowers his eyes. “I had no idea. If I’d known, I…”
“You’d have what? You’d have pulled your head out of your ass, sobered up and come to the rescue with a cure for fucking dementia?”
Raife bangs the dashboard with the flat of his palm. Silence follows the impact.
“I’m sorry.” Jack shakes his head.
Raife nods but the edge has returned. Jack takes a long slow breath before speaking again. “She’s deteriorated quickly. I used to call her maybe every month - a least that - and she’d sounded pretty much the same until recently. Even then she’d just sound tired, maybe a little forgetful but, not like this.”
“I won’t go.”
“I think we should, both of us, we can talk to Papa, see if he’ll agree to get her some help. There must be something. He’ll listen to you.”
“I said I won’t go.”
The rain has eased, the sky lightens and all around St. Cloud shimmers. Jack rolls down the window, the cab is suddenly claustrophobic and he needs air. They’re on the bush road that winds around the islands bends and curves leading home. It’s the same road, the same fucking road, and driving it with Raife is the trigger. He feels it descending; a dark, heavy mist and there’s nothing he can do. Suddenly the need to run is everywhere and foreboding gives way fully to panic.
The sensation is a physical blow, an impact hard on his chest as his body remembers what his mind has locked away. Sweat prickles his skin and his muscles spasm in nervous tension. His scalp tingles, nerve ends on standby as his heart begins to race and the panic settles. This time he can’t control it, side-swiped when his resistance is low, wave upon wave of nausea rise and fall. He tries to focus on his breath but it’s ragged and short. With a jerk of the wheel, he pulls over to the side of the road, jumps from the truck and pushes through the tree line where he doubles over and vomits as Raife looks on.
The scene that greets us when we arrive at Zoe’s is blissful. It’s a snapshot moment of perfection that should be taken and gifted to every new mother later, when her baby is a mischievous toddler, emptying kitchen cupboards and pulling cats’ tails.
Zoe is asleep on the sofa and Freya, baby of newborn deliciousness, has fallen asleep on her chest, skin to skin. Zoe is flushed and beautiful and Freya is perfect in every tiny, delicate detail of newborn, wrinkled newness. Her little head is turned to face us and her mouth is open. A shock of dark hair caps her head and tiny hands lay in fists on Zoe’s chest.
Ginny and I stand transfixed at the door, unwilling to go in and break the moment. We all know how precious a baby’s sleep is, better still the miracle of mother and baby asleep at the same time. Ginny grasps my hand and squeezes it as we stand side by side in the open door frame. The afternoon is warm and the distant sounds of Mattie and Nate playing in the garden drift through the fragrant air. When I glance around Ginny’s eyes are wet but she doesn’t move to wipe them or turn away.
The tranquil bubble bursts as Evie and Sunny, who I’d momentarily forgotten about come racing up behind us, tussling to get through the door first. I haven’t time to quieten them. Zoe’s eyes snap open and little Freya reflexively jumps.
“Hey guys,” Zoe says softly, her voice slow with sleep.
“So sorry, we didn’t mean to wake you.” I apologise as she smiles and waves my words away with a free hand.
“It’s fine. She’s due for a feed.” Zoe sits up slowly lifting little Freya, who doesn’t cry exactly but makes a sound like a small cat mewing. Evie and Sunny are struck dumb having never seen such a small person before.
Eyes like saucers, Evie points a finger toward Freya. “Baby.”
I kneel down beside her. “This is baby Freya darling.”
Her eyes don’t move from the tiny bundle. “Who brought her?” She walks slowly forward to Zoe who is positioning Freya to feed. I’m about to give some fabulously creative, sort of true, pre-schooler answer to the innocent where-did-the-baby-come-from question but Sunny has moved in and squeals loudly, making us all jump.
“Look Mommy! Look!” He has muscled his way past open-mouthed Evie to the edge of the sofa. One hand rests on Zoe’s leg, the other points to the baby whose small mouth is open, searching for a nipple. Without a trace of inhibition Zoe has whipped out an engorged breast and is trying to get Freya to latch on. “Mommy, look at Zoe’s boobies!” He starts to giggle and Evie quickly recovering from her open-mouthed stance joins in. The phenomenon of milky boobies and feeding babies cause much hilarity between the twins for maybe thirty seconds. Mattie hollers from the yard and sensing fun, babies and boobies are forgotten as they race outside.
“She’s so beautiful.” I lower myself gently on to the sofa beside them.
“I know.” Zoe can’t take her eyes off the tiny face.
My attention is swayed a little by her breast which still hasn’t made full contact with Freya’s grasping mouth and has begun to spray small jets of warm breast milk. “Zoe…” She is smiling at me, full of the joys of motherhood. I gesture toward the breast.
“Oh.” She shifts quickly and the breast squirts in my direction. A little stunned I glance down at my t-shirt which sports a small dark wet patch mid chest. She whistles in surprised appreciation. “Woops, don’t know my own strength.”
I can’t take my eyes off the squirting milk and the little mouth that has now dextrously found its target and sucks thirstily. “That was…”
“Awkward?” Zoe finishes, giggling. “Sorry, I have a lot of milk.”
“No, amazing,” I’m in awe. “It’s amazing, your boobs are…well, amazing.”
I shake my head in wonder, remembering how I struggled with breast feeding and how my own milk had come in like a lactose heavy tidal wave that had trickled out shortly after. I’d put it down to stress and had subsequently beaten myself with the mother’s guilty stick over my inadequacy.
“Are you sure you’re a writer? Three amazing’s in a row? I was hoping for a spectacular or maybe a super sexy.”
“Super sexy wouldn’t be my first choice right now.”
We all laugh, despite the glow in her cheeks and the content aura that surrounds her, Zoe hasn’t brushed her wild hair in a few days and its curly mass frizzes around her face in a voluptuous afro. She wears stripey pyjama bottoms and an industrial sized, beige feeding bra.
“Someone call me?” Felix enters on cue.
“No, but we should have.” Virginia answers from the kitchen where she is filling a teapot with boiling water. “Poor Billie here was just given a dose of breast milk.”
“I’m here now, happy to help.” He grins and bends to kiss Zoe on the top of her head. “Just yell when it’s my turn.”
Zoe throws a cushion at him as he heads to the kitchen returning a second later with a big bag of potato chips. “Just distracting the hordes with some junk food, shout if you need me.” As he reaches the door we hear his voice greet Sadie who enters the room moments later laden with a cake box and a tray of take away cups.
Zoe claps her hands together making poor Freya jump. “Sadie! Come in, meet Freya and feed me cake and coffee!”
Sadie’s smile lights the room. She places the box and cups on the table and moves to hug Zoe and coo over Freya who is still sucking ferociously. “Oh she’s perfect Zoe, and you look incredible. How are you feeling? Was it awful?”
Zoe waves her hand dismissively, “Gory details later. Pass me that coffee cup and let’s talk more about how great I look.”
“Hey, I just made you a nice pot of milk thistle tea.” Virginia’s head pops round the corner from the kitchen, “It’s good for breast milk.” We all turn with expressions of disdain, free hands reaching for Beaujangles take-away coffee cups.
“I don’t think Zoe needs any help with her breast milk.” I reassure a miffed Virginia. “Come taste this.” I take a sip of my latte and hold a paper cup out to her. “Trust me, let’s give the milk thistle to the plants.”
Soon Ginny is seated cross-legged on the floor beside Zoe, coffee in one hand, pastry in the other, all thoughts of healthy consumables gone. United in self-indulgent sweet treats and caffeine, we are one. We pass the gorgeous Freya gently from one set of arms to the next, oohing and aahing over her tiny, sweet-smelling perfection. We share news and laugh a lot, and a great deal of mileage is gained in the retelling of the dinner-party-water-breaking-incident. Ginny does a hilariously accurate impression of Felix’s face when he thinks Zoe has just wee-ed in his lap. Little Freya sleeps and feeds, and Sunny and Evie run in and out, happy in their playtime with their big-boy friends.
It isn’t long before someone brings out a bottle of bubbles. We clink sparkly crystal glasses to toast the newest member to our small family of fabulous women.
Another hour later and we are still there, camped out in Zoe’s living room. On the floor and sofa, glasses in hand, faces flushed and cheeks sore from laughing: Zoe, Freya, Virginia, Sadie and me. We have somehow through the passing of time and life’s ups and downs, become a misfit sort of a unit. The company is comfortable and easy, I don’t have to pre-empt words, hide feelings or disguise emotions. Here it’s all okay. These women know and love me, they’d do anything for me, they already have and I’d do the same right back.
Entirely outnumbered, Felix has taken the boys and Evie down to the den to eat pizza and watch Star Wars. The twins, far too young to understand the intricacies of space combat were just glad to be part of the action. At last check both were asleep on either side of Felix. Unphased by Darth Vader’s creepy deep breathing, they did that beautiful thing that little people do. No matter where they are and in spite of noise, vibration, music, chatter, and intergalactic battles to save the earth; they sleep. They feel comfortable and safe. They’re warm and their tummies are full of cheese pizza, so despite the mayhem around them they sleep tucked under Felix’s arms.
Freya has fed, burped, vomited, pooped and been changed copious times since our arrival and I’m secretly high-fiving myself. Only a few years ago I survived this, times two.
“It’s a miracle we’ve made it this far.” I announce taking another long full sip from my glass. “I mean look at us? Look at how needy our babies are? Wouldn’t you think that another species, one whose young were up and running and getting their own dinner by three weeks old would be dominant?”
The others turn to look at me, with James Bond-esque raised eyebrows. “I thought we were talking about Spanish men and their sex drive.” Ginny queries. If she had half-moon spectacles, she’d look over top of them right now and give me the frown.
“We were, we are, but it got me thinking about sex, and then that led to babies and then, well you can see the connection. Don’t you agree? How did we make it this far? It’s not like we’re terribly well designed either, so complicated, no wings and no fur, too many dangly bits. I mean, so many things to go wrong.”
“Speak for yourself on the no fur!” says Zoe rubbing a hairy leg.
Sadie nods sagely, “I agree, it doesn’t make any sense.” She takes a deep drink from her own glass, “but then what does?”
“Exactly!” Ginny concurs, slamming her glass down on the table too hard. Everyone jumps and Zoe throws a peanut at Ginny’s head. “Sorry. But you’re right it doesn’t, it doesn’t make sense, and that ladies is the difference. Humans try to make sense of it. It’s what sets us apart, our intelligence. We think and we question.”
“And we like sex,” hoots Zoe from the sofa.
We all laugh, Ginny stops mid science lecture flow then slaps her thigh with her hand. “My God we do, where do I get me some?”
This causes another wave of hilarity, but Virginia who has loosened up considerably with the bubbles carries on. “I’m here to tell you girls…” she pauses dramatically, her eyes flutter a little and she raises a hand. We wait expectantly, all eyes on Ginny whose lipstick has smudged a little. “You can be happy in marriage…” she raises her head proudly, “…after twenty-one years with sex once a month.” Another small frown, “Okay, maybe once every six weeks give or take work schedules etc.”
There’s a slightly awkward silence then a snort, a throat clearing ‘bullshit’ and an explosion of belly laughter. Ginny starts to laugh, “I’m serious!” She waves a hand and sips her drink. “Trust me sisters.”
Zoe sits stock straight, thankfully Freya ensconced on her chest doesn’t stir. “Are you freaking kidding me?”
There a sudden seriousness to the moment none of us had expected, least of all Virginia. She looks suddenly deflated; girlish and unsure. Zoe who is completely sober, thank God, rescues the moment quite perfectly. “Okay…well, do you have a vibrator?”
Virginias mouth drops open in genuine shock. “My God, no.” She looks carefully around the room, we are all laughing hysterically. “Why do you?”
Virginia surveys us all as though for the first time. “Hang on a minute, why have we never had this discussion before? I feel like I’ve missed something vital.”
“Zoe, you’re terrible.” I laugh patting bemused Virginia on the arm. “Don’t worry Ginny, she’s being silly.”
“No. I’m not. Honestly why would you be without one? Instant gratification for the busy mother.”
“Does Felix know?” Ginny asks, desperately curious.
“Of course, he bought it for me. I think it’s a bit of a relief - less pressure on him.”
At this moment the laughter is interrupted by Felix who strolls into the room looking sleepy, fresh from a doze on the sofa with the kids watching Star Wars. The abrupt break in laughter stops him in his tracks and he looks around sheepishly.
“Should I come back later?”
We all start to laugh again. “No Felix stay. Zoe was just filling us in on some new hardware you’ve been purchasing.” Sadie grins innocently as Felix rubs his head looking confused, no doubt wondering why we’re talking power tools. Zoe throws a peanut at Sadie this time but Sadie is too quick and catches it in her mouth, crunching it with a cheeky wink.
Freya rustles, saving Zoe the hardware/power tool explanation. She heads off to the bedroom with the baby for another round of nappy and onesie changing. Felix, heads to the kitchen and hurries back through the room moments later with a beer, cheeks a little flushed. Keen to be away from the cackling lady folk.
Ginny sighs, extending her legs out in front of her, wriggling her toes, watching the glint of her shiny pink toe nail polish. “I’m not sure what to do.”
Sadie has grabbed the bowl of peanuts and is honing her ‘throw-and-mouth-catch’ trick. She answers between mouthfuls. “I’d wait till they come up with a solar-powered one.”
Ginny and I exchange confused glances then turn our gaze back to Sadie and her adept peanut-eating technique. She continues, “Otherwise you’ll just end up spending a fortune on batteries.” A nut bounces off her nose then rolls across the floor. “So un-environmental.”
“I’m not talking about vibrators you lemon.” Virginia rolls her eyes, “Mike, I’m talking about Mike.”
“Oh.” Sadie stops mid-throw and the last flying peanut bounces on the hardwood floor.
“I don’t know what to do about Mike.”
“I thought you were here to tell us how great it was after twenty-one years.” I touch her hand gently.
Sadie and I glance at one another, unsure what comes next. Virginia brings her knees up to her chest and hugs them tightly as she continues. “Oh I sound terrible. I don’t mean that its bad, really things are fine. But that’s just it, they’re fine. I think I just always thought we’d, well…”
“You’d what?” I ask.
“We’d be more.” Her flushed face droops and her eyes fill again.
I can see these are barely processed thoughts. Things she’s been pushing away, filing in the too hard basket.
“He’s a good man.” She turns to us reassuringly, keen to pledge allegiance to the husband she feels she’s bagging on. “You know that. Gosh listen to me, he’s a wonderful man.”
“We know that.” I squeeze her hand again.
“It’s just that together, for a few years now, we haven’t been wonderful.” She bites her lip. “We used to be, at least I thought we were. But now we’re sort of just another average couple, just partners stuck in the same routines.” She looks at me like I should nod and agree and so I do. “It’s not that I want to be with anyone else. I just want more. It won’t go away, this feeling that what we have is only a tiny taste of how we could be.” She pauses, eyes fixed on her feet, the pale pink toes now quite still. “I always thought we’d grow together you know? You do don’t you? You think together you’ll grow out of all your problems, that you’re just at the beginning of this long journey and that somewhere along the way you’ll sort it all out.”
I keep nodding. Sadie has joined suit and Zoe has tiptoed back into the room and is curled on the sofa quietly listening and nodding too.
“But we’re here, we’re at that place and things are the same. I’m 47 and Mike will be 50 this year. He’s still more passionate about work than me. We do the same things week in week out, and here I am joking about it, pretending like it’s okay to have sex once a month.”
It must be the bubbles. I’ve never heard her like this but I’m pretty sure she means every word. Usually Ginny is the one who clears up the mess for everyone else. She is the fixer, the stable-headed, got it together Agony Aunt. When you create that role for yourself there’s no room to be needy or confused, you don’t often share because it’s just not what you do.
“And you know what? It’s not enough. And it’s not the lack of sex, it’s so much more.”
There’s a long pause and we are silent, waiting for her to continue. She takes a long, deep breath then exhales. “So, in summary darlings, I don’t think a vibrator is going to cut it.” She sniffs and Sadie passes her a hankie. “God, if only it were that easy. It’s more, it’s being interested in each other. I don’t even know if Mike wants more. Maybe he’s quite happy with what we have.” A little sob escapes. “That’s even worse, don’t you think?”
I sling an arm around her while she has her moment. Sadie fills Ginny’s glass till bubbles froth happily over the top and down the side. She smiles and sips and we don’t say anything for a while. There’s nothing to say. None of us can make it better, or offer anything that might help. Not right now. It’s Ginny and Mike’s business to figure out, to work out together, to realise that together they can be more; if together they want to be.
We sip our glasses in synchronised thoughtful reflection. I pat her shoulder and hope that she feels the support that surrounds her and remembers tomorrow, that although her glass might seem a little dusty and tired, it’s almost always full.
Zoe frowns then pads out of the room and returns a moment later carrying a brown paper bag. She has a quick look right and left, then throws the package across the room at Ginny who manages to catch it spilling some bubbles in her lap.
“No.” she shrieks breaking into a toothy smile.
Zoe shrugs, “I had a spare.” She grins. “Don’t worry! It’s still in the box, unused. What sort of a friend do you think I am?”
Sadie grabs the package from a wide-eyed Ginny and rips it open extracting a large white, diamante-studded vibrator. She holds it gingerly, then throws it with a whoop of laughter to Ginny who seems to have regained her sense of humour. Despite her assurances that it would take more than a vibrator to fix her troubles Ginny soon has the ‘Rabbit Deluxe’ tucked away in the depths of her handbag.
It’s almost seven and my cheeks are sore from laughing. I make a move to leave but as Evie and Sunny are asleep on the sofa Zoe persuades us to stay for one more drink, promising that Felix will drive us all home.
Sadie is all smiles, she sits cross-legged on the floor, takes a little sip of bubbles and hiccups. I decide I prefer her without the dreadlocks. She has such a pretty face; heart-shaped, with a nose like a Disney princess; small with a perfect upturn at the end. Her beauty is very natural: the short blonde hair, pale skin, freckles around her nose and sparkly hazel-coloured eyes.
The hiccup turns into a cough, one of those coughs that starts small then grows like a thunderclap. A small splutter that she struggles to suppress but the deep rumble has begun and soon she’s coughing persistently and loudly. It’s a deep wet cough that makes her eyes stream and her face red. Virginia rushes to the kitchen for some water whilst I give her a good bash on the back.
“I’m fine.” She splutters between coughs. “It’ll stop in a minute.”
“Bubbles must have gone down the wrong way” Zoe offers. “You just need more practice drinking champers Sadie. That’s the problem.”
Sadie tries to smile but the wet cough carries on despite the water, and she excuses herself to the bathroom.
“That girl is too pale for my liking.” Virginia has returned to her mothering role. “Really, she needs a tonic. I’ll bet she’s anaemic. I’m going to tell Dan to have a word with her, get her some iron supplements.”
“I think she just drank too quickly Ginny, you can relax.” I say.
Moments later Sadie is back, eyes watery and cheeks flushed. “Sorry about that girls, all good.”
Ginny can’t help herself, she stands with a little wobble and places an arm on Sadie’s. “Darling, I’ve been saying it to you for ages and I just wish you’d listen. I may specialise in vaginas and ovaries but I know a thing or two about general health, and I’d say you really need a check-up. Get Dan to do some bloods and check your iron.” She sits down again pulling Sadie down with her, passing her back the offending glass of bubbles. “Trust me on this, I know what I’m talking about.”
“Thanks Ginny.” Sadie pats Virginia on the arm affectionately. “I don’t need a blood test.”
“Oh but really, I honestly think you should.”
Sadie waves her hand to swat away Ginny’s words, clearing the air. “Ladies, being that we’re celebrating, I may as well share a little secret I’ve been keeping.”
This pronouncement is met with much oohing and clapping of hands. Sadie stands, does a little twirl and a courtesy. “I, Sadie, who swore she’d never, ever, well, not least till…”
“Get on with it,” Ginny heckles.
“Okay, okay.” She laughs, “I am…” dramatic pause, “…getting married.”
There’s a collective hush, then a unified collection of wow, no way, oh my God, do we know him? and other such exclamations of surprise. It’s not that we didn’t know Jed and Sadie were serious but after the hoo-ha over Jed’s radio proposal we were all pretty sure that marriage wasn’t an option.
Zoe jumps off the sofa and throws her arms around Sadie. “Just tell us it’s Jed.”
Sadie is laughing loudly as Zoe practically squeezes the air from her lungs. “It’s Jed!” she yelps. “It’s Jed.”
After we’ve all hugged her and toasted some more, we get down to the business of what sparked this change of heart. Zoe as usual, is the first with the questions.
“Tell us, please, how did he ask you this time? I mean, how did he manage to top the radio show stunt?”
“Oh my God! Yes. “Virginia claps her hands together remembering the evening in Santos. “That was perfect. I loved it, poor Jed. Remember the reception he got when he came back?”
“That was so not perfect.” Sadie shakes her head. “It was awful. But you’re right, poor Jed. I did make him pay.”
“So what did he do this time? Or is it X-rated?” Zoe is on the edge of the sofa.
“No, it is not X-rated. Zoe, you’re an animal.”
“It’s just the hormones.”
“So? Tell us? You have our undivided attention, we need the scoop.” I fold my arms and give Sadie my best no-nonsense look.
She laughs. “Okay, okay. But there’s really nothing to tell. I just changed my mind. I needed to think a few things through.”
“And?” Ginny smiles, looking much more like her maternal self.
“And we talked, and I realised that life’s short and sometimes we don’t get too many chances.” She stops abruptly and glances over at me. “Sorry Billie, I hope that didn’t…”
“Stop it, don’t be silly.”
I focus carefully on my smile, telling it sternly to stay there. I never know when the smallest throw away comment will start me off. So, I look at Sadie and think about smiling, and the fact that I’m happy. I am happy, and life right now is good. Sometimes sad yes, tragic yes, unpredictable always, but right now, good. “Carry on will you?” I pinch her affectionately.
“So, I thought, well why the hell not?”
“Amen!” says Zoe.
“Sadie that’s great, really great, I’m so happy for you both.” I really am. I am so happy for Jed and for Sadie, they are perfect for each other and she’s right, life is short. “Jed is a great guy.”
“I know.” Sadie smiles widely. “And I figured if I didn’t get around to saying yes he might go off and ask someone else.”
We become spectacularly, stereotypical females for the following ten minutes. With great excitement we discuss weddings, rings, dresses and such like. We compare experiences and imaginatively plan the perfect ceremony, dress, cake and party for Jed and Sadie.
Sadie humours us and lets us get carried away on her behalf even though she’s probably rolling her eyes inside, knowing that really, they’re planning to pledge their love over a few beers on the beach. She listens, relaxing into the imagined future we are creating. Soon we’ve planned a Chanel dress, a seven-layer cake, crates of Moet and a reception for one hundred where Radiohead make a guest appearance.
“Too depressing,” Sadie shakes her head solemnly.
“Are you kidding me? What’s wrong with that plan? That is so the perfect wedding.” Zoe exclaims, offended.
“No, just Radiohead. Too depressing.”
“Really? “Zoe frowns for a moment, “I do love them though, and of course it’s all about me.” She smiles and we eye roll. “How about Dan throws together some happy tunes and DJ’s for a bit, then Radiohead make a guest appearance and do a few numbers near the end?”
Sadie nods but her eyes are far away. Bringing her knees up to her chest she wraps her arms around herself and looks out the window where the sun is beginning to set.
“God, what time is it?” I sit up, if the sun is setting then we must have outstayed our welcome. “We should go. I need to get the twins to bed, poor things.”
“Oh my gosh, you’re right.” Ginny follows my gaze out the window. “How did it get this late?”
“It got this late because you sat here all afternoon drinking bubbles and keeping me company while I sit here like a big cow, being milked on the hour. But don’t go yet, Felix can babysit a bit longer.”
“No,” Sadie turns to us looking so serious I wonder if I missed something, “there’s something else.”
There are occasional moments in life when understanding passes in a glance. It’s a language beyond words, subtle and powerful. The flicker of an eye might speak in a voice you recognise. A fleeting expression from another can be so familiar, that for a moment, you might believe their feelings are your own.
As Sadie looks at us I see loss and I recognise it. I see sadness in loss, and the feeling expressed in a glance is like an old friend. She watches us warily, composing her words. And although I know the loss is not mine I’m suddenly afraid, afraid of what I see in her eyes and afraid of what she is about to say.
Maybe I’m the only one that feels the moment so intensely, maybe when that feeling of loss still weighs on your heart, only then can you sense it in others. Everyone looks expectantly at Sadie but no-one shows any apprehension. She takes a breath then speaks quickly - too quickly.
“I have this thing…”
All eyes are on Sadie, unsure of what thing she’s about to divulge: a birthmark shaped like a two finger salute on her left butt cheek, a hairy mole on her boob, an addiction to re-runs of Dallas. But I know, I know before she has to tell us something is wrong, very wrong.
“So don’t get all weird on me. It’s just one of those things. I’m used to it and Jed knows and…”
Virginia can’t take any more, she raises a hand palm-up like a traffic warden. “Stop, I’ve had a little more to drink than the rest of you but you’re making my head spin. Will you spit it out! What thing?
She throws the words, then having delivered them, looks around at our wide eyes, assessing our expressions carefully. “I have cystic fibrosis.”
There’s a stunned pause, a sobering moment before anyone responds.
“Oh sweetie,” Virginia is the first to speak, laying a hand on Sadie’s leg. “Why didn’t you say anything before?” By our silence it’s pretty obvious Zoe and I aren’t actually sure what cystic fibrosis is.
Sadie shrugs, “It doesn’t have to be that big of a deal. That’s why I don’t talk about it unless I have to.”
“Sorry, I’m a ditz Sadie. What does that mean for you?” I ask.
Sadie quietly explains her condition and how she lives with the genetic disease. She tells us of how she manages it with daily routines and medications, and she tells us of the risks. We ask questions and she answers. Sadie talks of the disease like an experienced doctor, unemotionally, just the facts.
We are suddenly all quite sober, we talk with careful tones; afraid to overreact and cause upset, or the opposite and appear heartless. After the science, the facts and treatments she drops the clanger.
“You see, I can accept it, it’s all I know, but it was Jed. I was afraid of telling him, then I was afraid of not telling him, then he went and asked me to marry him. That really threw me.” She takes a sip from her glass, more relaxed now. “I mean how could I say yes when he didn’t know my big ugly secret?”
“It’s not ugly.” Zoe says firmly.
Sadie continues “Then I got to thinking that I’d missed the boat, I’d really screwed things up because if I told him after he’d proposed then he’d feel obligated to go ahead because you don’t dump the sick girl.”
“Why would it stop him from wanting to marry you?” I ask, confused. I must admit, the revelation of her illness is almost a relief to me. I had imagined far worse was about to come.
Sadie looks imploringly at me and that look of loss is right back in her eyes, they ache as she reaches a hand out to mine. “That’s just it Billie, he wouldn’t. It wouldn’t stop him and I can’t give him the time he deserves.”
And I understand now the loss is hers. It’s the loss of the life she might never see and a love that can’t last.
“What does that mean?” asks Zoe, very still, eyes fixed on Sadie’s sombre face.
“These days’ people with CF are lucky if they live till forty.”
We’re all very quiet. I realise that of course Virginia must have known this, her face is unchanged, open and understanding. Zoe and I are shocked and we show it.
“That’s ridiculous,” Zoe announces. This makes Sadie smile.
“I know. I think so too but there we go, life’s a bitch.”
“No, I mean, surely with new research and all that stuff…I mean forty’s so…”
“Young. I know. There are some people that live happily for longer, others don’t make it that far. But hey, let’s not talk about that part.”
“Of course,” I say. “God Sadie, what a thing to carry around and not tell.”
“Believe me, it’s just easier sometimes. Dan knows. He’s been great.”
“So what changed, why did you tell Jed? I mean it’s all okay because we just planned your wedding right?” Zoe is perplexed.
“Yes.” Her face lights up. “It all sort of took care of itself in the end.”
She’s quiet for a moment. “It was stupid thinking that I could keep it from him for long. I’ve had a lifetime of trying to be normal, whatever the hell that is.” She rolls her eyes. “Pretending to be normal, managing myself so I wouldn’t have to tell people. The ‘sick-girl sympathy’ kills me.” She pauses and frowns. “Bad word choice.” We’re all quiet, awkward in the dark humour we’re not quite ready to share.
“In the end, Jed found out anyway, and it wasn’t like I’d expected at all. He wasn’t like I’d expected.” She smiles and her eyes sparkle. “He talked me round, and finally I got to thinking that he’s right. It doesn’t matter, we’re happy now and I can’t plan his happiness for him. I can’t make choices for him and you know what?” Sadie pauses for dramatic effect. “I’ve never been so God damn happy!”
Moments later we’re in a group hug, Felix times his entrance badly once again. “Should I come back later?” He smiles awkwardly from the edge of the room.
Zoe extracts herself from the tangle of girlfriends in bonding, her eyes streaming. “Get over here and give us some man-love.” Felix looks a little stunned as we turn to face him, we’re all sniffling. Zoe reaches an arm for him and Felix approaches, his expression bemused but soft. He knows something has passed between us, he’s unsure what, but he knows better than to ask.
The scene would be funny if there weren’t so much crying. Felix towers over the standing circle of entwined, teary females. He wraps his arms around us and we lean into him. And although he has no idea of what’s going on, he knows what to do. His warm, solid presence forms a wall of comfort and steadiness. He knows the room is a wobbly fusion of hormones and champagne but he simply smiles and joins the shaky hug until we’re all hugged out.
I’m not sure how long it takes, maybe just a few minutes, maybe more, but after a time Sadie starts to giggle and we follow suit. All except Felix, who shakes his head, kisses Zoe on the head then asks who needs a ride home.
It’s 9 pm by the time we’re putting Evie and Sunny to bed. Jed, having had a tip off from Felix, arrived to take Sadie home and Felix delivered Ginny and I here with the twins to Frontiere Point.
Ginny had insisted she should help me put the twins to bed. Together we tuck them in, a little slower than if we were sober, and retreat back to the kitchen where I find some more wine and we sit at the kitchen table to talk some more.
My head thrums and I’ve reached a point where usual reservations and inhibitions are pushed aside. The slow stream of alcohol trickles steadily through my veins, numbing my senses and delivering me to an unfamiliar, but quite wonderful place where I feel fit to burst with emotion.
I feel brave and angry, and plain pissed off at life’s continuous kick in the ass; the kick which seems harshest and hardest to only the best and most beautiful people. I’m angry that at every turn someone I love gets served a kick up the pants from life.
I open the bottle and pour two large glasses and a flash of guilt illuminates my boozy fog. Didn’t you blame it all on the booze? Didn’t you tell him this was where it started? I wobble uncertainly, balancing for a second between guilt and oblivion.
“Fuck it.” The wine sloshes over the edge of the glass and I jump, steadying myself and the bottle.
“Excuse me?” Virginia peers out from the kitchen cupboard where she is rooting around for potato chips.
“Fuck what exactly?”
I sit down heavily at the kitchen table, pick up my glass watching the golden glow of wine circling as I swirl. Unceremoniously I gulp half of the contents down in one go. “All of it.”
Ginny’s head tips slightly to the side, like she’s thinking carefully about something terribly insightful I’ve just said. She nods, throws a bag of salted chips on the table and lowers herself into the seat opposite nodding sagely. “All of it and the rest!” She raises her glass, clinks it with mine and takes a large gulp.
The house is quiet, the twins are asleep, the sun has set and outside the sky fades, reddish gold fading to indigo blue. I watch it, the light on the ocean and the deep forever of the night sky.
“It’s not fair Ginny,” I shake my head wisely, a woman of the world. “It’s not fair.” In my drunken haze I am un-contradictable. You see I have suffered; I have been on the unfair side of life. I sink with the wine to the bottom of my glass.
Ginny is at the same stage of drama as I, having drunk too much wine and heard the same sad news. She’s in no position to kick me up my melodramatic ass.
“Poor, poor Sadie.” She shakes her head and sips from her glass again. “I’ll never understand why things work out the way they do. Why the worst people get all the luck and the best never do. I mean really Billie, I’ve been lucky and I can be one serious bitch!”
I start to giggle. “Get out, everyone loves you.”
Ginny ignores me entirely. “I mean really, there’s no sense in the workings of the world. Good, young, beautiful people get sick and suffer and old miserable bastards just go on and on.” She frowns at me, then grins. “Oh Billie, there’s nothing to be done. Nothing at all. Sadie and Jed will be fine and with the way things go in this funny old life, Sadie will outlive us all. It’s just…”
“It’s just…?” I prompt when her focus begins to wander. “It’s just what?” I’m hoping for the perfect wise summary, the one liner that will put my angst to rest. But she looks up at me like she’s forgotten what we were talking about.
“Call Mike for me will you darling? I need to go to bed.”
I do, and ten minutes later Mike arrives to pick up his sozzled wife. I wave them goodbye, Ginny blows me kisses from the passenger seat as Mike frowns, heading for home.
Alone inside the house I walk slowly from room to room. I check Evie and Sunny again, laying a hand on their chests and pressing my lips to their foreheads. The night is hot, airless and still and I open the windows and remove my sandals and dress. I move through the dimly lit house trailing a hand over wall and window, trying to feel at peace but unable to lose the seed of anger and despair.
Outside everything is black, there is no moon. The sky is heavy with weighty clouds, more rain on the way. There is no reflection of moon or starlight on the ocean, no glimmer of light in the sky. Jack’s house is in darkness and I feel alone.
I know the timing is wrong but I don’t listen to my more rational self, bitten by something I can’t explain, an unfamiliar, self-destructive force drives me forward.
I enter Evan’s studio. The one room I have left untouched. Its walls remain unpainted, windows shut tight, the smell of linseed oil and wood shavings stop me in the doorway. The pain is momentary. Driven forward by anger and wine I push the door wide and flip on the lights.
Nothing is as it was, yet everything still is.
There are no models hanging, no half built sculptures on the worktable, no music playing, no warmth, yet something of him remains. It is the only place left I can still feel him, despite the passing of time. In the naked yellow light, the studio is barren. Maybe it’s my mood, the booze, the news of Sadie’s illness, or simply a general disillusionment with life and the hands we’re dealt. But I don’t cry or speak softly to him as I have in the past. I feel a rush of anger flood my chest and soar through me like a trapped bird and I let my wine glass fly. I throw it as hard as I can against the wall where it explodes in a thousand sparkling pieces of fractured glass.
Nothing is as it was, yet everything still is.
I wallow in fate’s shitty dealing of my cards this far. I allow myself to be the victim, waiting for the time when it all turns around, when poor old Billie gets a good deal.
Well hell, is it okay to finally be done waiting? God dammit, what good will waiting on life’s perfect course get Sadie? What good did it do Mom? What good did it do Evan? Life doesn’t do waiting, it doesn’t do fair, it doesn’t wait around for should have’s and what if’s. Life doesn’t give a shit, because really, no-one’s watching. It’s a fucking lottery, a gamblers game, who gets what, and when, and how long. No-one knows and dammit no-one cares?
Master plan my ass. It’s all a bloody mess and you can only do the best you can, and hope for a lucky deal.
Standing still in the corner of the room I survey the broken glass in pieces on the floor. No moonlight to reflect my ignorance in the broken shards that lie scattered. The yellow overhead bulb casts a jaundiced glow on the scene and I feel no shame in my drunken drama. I leave the mess, and the smell of linseed oil, and Evan. I flip out the light and retreat back to the den where comforting darkness allows me to wallow in self-inflicted pain.
Sinking on to the sofa I watch the darkness, steady and reliable and I rally my heart to find its equilibrium. Anger slowly subsides but that seed of unrest persists and I watch the night, waiting for a star.
Instead there is rain, a signal of the sky’s discontent; a rumble, gentle pattering, then the drumbeat, heavy and unrelenting. The sound is everywhere and its persistence blocks out everything for a time.
Maybe it’s right then, or later, an hour, maybe more, but headlights shining on the side of Jack’s house startle me. His truck moving steadily into the drive, a flash of brightness then nothing, a slamming door then another. I watch as lights appear in his house, but even the thought of Jack gives me no comfort.
My thoughts spin recklessly. I am a stranger in my own head.