Cam sends a monthly letter. It arrives like clockwork on the last few days of the month. It’s written in black ink on thick white paper, folded and stuffed into a stripey-edged airmail envelope. Quite often there are a few Scottish bank notes folded into the paper and it’s a given that this be spent on a wee something for the twins.
I have created quite a ceremony around the letters. I look forward to them and savour the opening and reading, imagining him writing and the people and places he writes about. The letters have become a little lifeline to my other home, to my other family; Cam and Mom. And although the words are Cam’s, I always feel Mom in the sentiments. Funny how love can blur the edges from one heart to another. When I think of him, I think of her, and when I read his words I hear her voice.
Silly really, but sometimes I find I can’t open the letters straight away. I don’t want to. Sometimes I sit them on the hallway table. I examine the envelope propped up and waiting to be opened: the stamps, postmark and the hand written address. I imagine the journey it’s taken, from Cam’s old kitchen table and the red post box in Arrasaigh’s main street, over oceans and through the air, all the way here to me. I wait until the moment is perfect to read his words.
Today there are two letters, right on time: my expected envelope of treasures from Cam and another, a thick cream envelope, long and elegant with a red seal and a London postmark. Evie and Sunny are in the garden with Louie and Bets playing fetch and squirting water guns. It’s a gifted moment of peace to read my mail, so I grab my coffee and head to the swing seat outside.
Down on the grass Sunny is digging with a plastic spade for treasure while Louie watches, barking loudly. It’s an odd sound, not his usual playful bark but something different, he sounds almost grumpy. Poor old thing, I best check Sunny hasn’t been trying to ride him like a horse again.
“Louie, here boy!” I try to coax him away, making a mental note to tell Jack Louie seems a little out of sorts. But in seconds he seems back to his playful, affectionate self and is wrestling Sunny’s spade from his little hands.
“Louie, it’s not a stick. Mommy tell him it’s not a stick.” Sunny is yelling and chasing him, but Louie is off at top speed. Evie meanwhile has abandoned her water gun and lounges on her tummy on the grass transfixed with a small red pickup truck she is loading carefully with leaves.
I take a sip of coffee and weigh the letters in my hands. Cam’s, a little crumpled, the envelope stained on the corner, the letters spidery, practiced script in blotchy blue biro. The other letter seems very formal in comparison. God, it must be another bill. Since Evan’s death I’ve had a few surprises. Evan’s student debts, the ones he’d told me were all paid off were evidently not.
Once again I say a silent prayer of thanks for our insurance policy. Without it, things would be very different. After the birth of the twins Evan organised life cover, a safeguard I’d believed wasn’t necessary. I’d told him we didn’t need it, that we should put the money into the house and fix things up. Thankfully Evan went ahead, and I wonder now if back then he sensed trouble ahead.
I wish I could say all his financial decisions were as well considered, but the bills that arrive periodically tell a different story. I sigh and place the formal letter underneath Cam’s, study the old fashioned hand writing for a bit longer then prise it open.
The careful writing and heartfelt words give me great comfort. As I read news of the island and farm, Nell and the locals, I can hear Evie and Sunny’s giggles and yells from the garden, lost in play. Closing my eyes, I take a moment to savour the letter. I’m picturing Spring in Arrasaigh, birthing of the lambs, Cam’s frazzled expression and wild hair as he returns from another long day out in the fields. Although he complains about how busy he is, I know he loves it. Lambing is his favourite time of year on the farm, the anticipation of new life, spring and an end in sight to the long grey of winter.
I imagine Nell in the kitchen, fussing over Cam. He becomes a shaggier more dishevelled form of his usual self this time of year. Unkempt and exhausted, he often doesn’t return to the farmhouse until evening. Nell will leave a fire in the grate and a warm meal on the table. He’ll sit at the old kitchen table with Samson at his feet, toes poking out of old woollen socks, whisky to hand.
Taking a long slow sip of coffee, I read on, ready to hear the rest of his news, which really is always the same as last month’s news; but that’s why I love it. The swing rocks gently below me, toes and heels pushing alternately encouraging the tiniest breeze amongst the heat.
“And so, it seems right that I should tell you love, I’ve been seeing a wee bit of Janey McGowne. I never thought I’d say it, but it’s nice to have someone to share an evening with. She’s a lovely woman, widowed ten years back, two kids at the university in Glasgow. She’s a teacher here at the primary school. I think you’d like her…”
My heels sink to the deck with a thump and the swing stops abruptly. I look up to check the view ahead. Evie and Sunny are still in the yard with Louie and Bets and the sun still beats down overhead. Everything is the same. I’m not dreaming, I didn’t just imagine that paragraph…
I read it again, this time aloud. Cam’s letter falls on my lap and I rest my hands there, palms down, on top of the words that mark change.
Cam has found someone new.
I can’t say why this shocks me to the core but it does. And it’s not that I’m upset, I’m not. I’m stunned. Cam and Mom are my forever, my image of eternal love, mated for life, my evidence that there is only ever one perfect love. And because Mom won’t ever have another love, I imagined Cam wouldn’t either. It’s been such a long time since her death, I suppose I expected things would always be the same; that Cam would be alone and I would be his first girl.
I paste on a smile and wave enthusiastically at Evie who is trying to show me something she’s unearthed in the garden.
Cam has found someone new.
“Mommy!” Sunny this time, pointing at whatever it is Evie has, trying to get my attention.
Cam has found another love.
Evie and Sunny in unison, Louie and Bets have disappeared. I see a sheepish face appear from behind the hedge, then a fuzzy rear end, tail tucked safely between legs, heading round the corner of Jack’s workshop.
It’s a good thing. I breathe deeply and stand, the letter falling to the deck. No, I take another careful breath, composing my inner child and telling her to back off. It’s a great thing. Cam is all alone, he has been all alone for too long. Is that what I want for him? To be old and alone in the farmhouse, his only happiness memories of another life? Mum has been gone a while and come to think of it so have I. What about Cam? Doesn’t he deserve another chance at love?
I’m getting ahead of myself, Janie McGowne might just be a friend, another dowdy village widow who brings him the odd apple pie. But then Cam wouldn’t have written about her. I know him well enough. She would have to already mean a lot for him to have felt the need to tell me. Janie McGowne is no dowdy widower bearing apple pie, although let’s hope for Cam’s sake she does bake apple pie. No, Janey McGowne is… I take a deep breath and clasp my hands to my chest; Cam’s new love.
The breath out is a long one, very controlled and together. I am an adult, I am an adult, I am an adult.
Evie yells, having stuck a finger in her mouth she screams wildly, waving her hands. Honestly what now? Gathering myself I take a few steps toward the edge of the deck, smiling, beckoning her to come over for a cuddle. Now that I’m closer, I see quite clearly the source of hysteria.
Evie has dog shit in her hands. Evie has also got dog shit in her mouth.
Screaming like a grossed out teenager I’m off the deck and beside her in four loping strides. She holds the offending smelly hands out to me, wailing, her mouth open, teeth smeared brown. Mustn’t vomit, mustn’t vomit…the garden hose isn’t far away but the smell is overpoweringly awful. Sunny is on my heels whooping and clapping, “Evie’s eating poop! Evie’s eating poop!”
Hose on full blast, Evie has a shocking power shower, silencing her yells for a second or two. When the shock subsides she opens her mouth to wail again. Without thinking I aim the hose for her once white teeth. Eyes wide she splutters and gasps for breath. Oh God, is anyone watching? Even Sunny is quiet and wide eyed, he looks warily from Evie to me, afraid the hose is coming his way.
“I’m sorry darling,” I scoop her up and run for the shower, this could be a national disaster, my reaction quite disproportionate to the event. But really, dog shit in her mouth? It’s beyond bad mothering! It’s down in the too-preoccupied-to-care category. Shitty parenting at its best! The thought doesn’t make me smile. All humour has been blasted with the garden hose and as I strip her clothes and rinse her little mouth I dry gag again.
Bloody Jack, bloody dogs, bloody Cam. I cuss under my breath, brushing her teeth, gums and tongue with a My Little Pony toothbrush and liberal dollops of Spiderman toothpaste.
Naked but still smelly, I put her small confused body under the hot shower, then realise the remaining smell is actually coming from me. My t-shirt is stained brown where I lifted her, and the ends of my hair are matted and pongy. As I begin to strip off Sunny joins in, pulling off his clothes, thrilled with his dog poop cupcake prank.
Soon we three are all in the shower, the yelling and crying have turned to giggles and the stench transformed to fragrant soapy bubbles. Evie stamps her feet in puddles of water that gather by the plug, asking why the mud tasted so bad. Sunny draws stick men on the steamy glass and I let the hot water run over my head; perspective beautifully restored.
It’s almost 6.00 pm when I remember the other letter.
I’m leaning in toward the bathroom mirror applying a fine coat of mascara to tired eyes. Maybe it’s the tired eyes that remind me. The concealer applied to dark shadows camping out beneath my lower lids might fool others but not me. My eyes have aged. There’s a lifetime of melancholy bagging underneath these eyes, and let me tell you, no amount of concealer and no ignoring of bills can remedy the situation.
Yes, that bloody bill awaits me, probably still upside down on the deck, waiting to be opened, surrounded by the faint odour of dog shit. What an afternoon. I check my reflection again, choosing to delay bill opening a bit longer.
It isn’t often I take the time to beautify myself. In fact, looking back, the last night out I had in St. Cloud was the mid-winter carnival, almost two years passed. The night Evan had his pre-death experience. The warm up that should have warned me of what was to come, of what I should have pre-empted and prevented.
Shaking my hair out with such force I feel dizzy, I push the negative memories away. I haven’t the strength to deal with them now. Tonight is another first, a night out with friends and I am determined to enjoy myself. Raife’s gig is tonight at Santos and I am making the effort. I am going out. I have a babysitter and God dammit I will have a good time.
As I brush my hair I remember Cam’s letter and instinctively smell dog poo, there’s an alternate sad/happy/disgusted reaction to the thoughts and I smile, leaning in to the mirror to apply some lip gloss. God, if Iris were here she’d rugby tackle me with a damp flannel, rub off the sallow gloss and slap some sassy red on my pout. But she’s not, so I purse my pale lips together, try to ignore the baggy eyes and smile at my reflection; which half smiles back looking just the littlest bit unsure.
By 7.00 pm I’m standing in quiet disbelief in the middle of the toy scattered living room. All around is quiet, really quiet, as in, just me and the birds, no children quiet. It’s very strange and I’m not sure I like it. I stand for a minute more, taking in the chaos of the floor: Lego, stuffed animals, books, crayons, unidentifiable game pieces scattered, play dough remnants pressed into the rug. Nodding slowly, I decide the quiet is in fact good. Better than good. It’s exactly what I need.
My neighbour on the opposite side to Jack, Marlene, has always been very generous with her time when it comes to Evie and Sunny. Her children have long flown the nest and she loves to see the twins, always offering to babysit. Tonight the twins will stay at her house meaning I have a whole night off and a possible sleep-in tomorrow.
Turning on the radio I hear Dan’s silky voice and relax. Tonight is his early show, the reggae is nice and I pour myself a wine, slip into my dress and wait for Zoe and Felix to pick me up. They’re late as usual. I imagine Felix, arms folded, waiting in the car while Zoe fusses. Felix’s mother has arrived from Germany, hence their first venture out since baby Freya.
Such a nice time of night, the sun is low and the evening light soft. Relaxing into the swing seat with my wine I rock gently, watching the glimmer of ocean and the changing green of the bush ahead. The light casts pale shadows on the grass, low sun behind tea trees and pungas, spiky long leaves and elegant pale bark in vague hazy shapes that move and change as the wind breathes and the bush sways. The gust lifts and deposits something white on the lawn. I watch as the rectangle of paper rises, tumbles and falls with the same timed perfection as the leaves. The letter.
Crap. Tempting as it is to leave the neglected bill to the fate of the wind, I chase the letter down the lawn until after a few near misses I catch it firmly. My neatly brushed hair has frizzed in the wind and I sigh, feeling my calm joy in nature ebb slightly. Back on the deck I slug my wine and rip the envelope open. Outside a car beeps and I hear Felix’s baritone calling my name.
Distractedly I read the first line once, then again. The horn beeps a second time and I read it a third. The envelope drops to the floor and I let my breath go, exhaling for the first time since I began to read. Carefully I fold the letter and place it in my bag.
“Come on, we’re already late!” yells Zoe.
Slamming the front door behind me, I jog to the waiting car and slide into the back seat smiling. Zoe is staring at me, her small nose screwed up in minor disgust. “Are you going to wear any shoes?”
Looking down I blush, “Woops.”
Sandals on, hair re-brushed I’m back in the car moments later, flushed and excited. Zoe shakes her head in despair. “Let’s go Felix, this one’s forgotten how to function without two babies in tow. Put your foot down before she changes her mind.”
Felix smiles and winks at me in the mirror. “You good to go Billie?”
I beam. “Get us out of here.” He salutes and revs the engine, the sound isn’t terribly impressive as we’re in a Toyota family wagon. Zoe claps a hand to her forehead as the tires do a mini screech out of the driveway into the night. I settle back to enjoy the drive, fingers clasped tightly around my bag.
The family van hugs the tight corners of the winding roads heading to the city. Felix sings along to Bon Jovi, and Zoe leans back trying to be heard over the noise. Her hands gesticulate, she nods, her mouth opens and closes almost in time to the music. I mirror the nod occasionally and smile. I can’t hear a word she’s saying but I’m not really trying to listen. I’m taking in the familiar sights and smells, the music, the friends and the happiness, shiny and bright and real as the night air and the musky smell on the breeze.
Amidst it all I hear my own voice, small but proud, echoing over the music, Felix’s singing and Zoe’s chatter, repeating the words in type that lie folded in my bag; “…publication of your debut novel…negotiation of terms and contract…three book deal.” I blink a few times readjusting focus, pinch myself discreetly on the soft inside of my wrist, but so far I’m still awake.
It must be true. In my bag lies folded an offer of publication for St. Germaine, the novel I’d almost forgotten I’d submitted in the clouded month before Evan’s death.
Joy and despair in equal measures.
“Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.”
The city at night: a potent blend of sensual pleasures. Lights sparkle and blink from cafes and bars, neon signs find life in the darkness after a day of faded identity under the suns’ bright rays. Smells of street food waft on heavy air and music is everywhere.
Bars open their doors to the streets and tables and chairs spill on to sidewalks. Jazz and reggae mingle disrespectfully, somehow creating an offbeat rhythm that works. Sweet and salty opposites attract, sounds, smells, flavours and people.
As we walk down Main Street, the vintage piano that lives under a sheltered awning by a tall hibiscus tree plays Mozart. A small crowd gather and an upturned straw fedora catches money from generous listeners. An old man, stooped and unshaven wearing a faded hawaiian shirt plays expertly. Gnarled fingers caressing the keys and calloused bare feet on the pedals. The clear melody rises above the chaos of music and conversation all around, his rhythm and timing exquisite.
We stop on the edge of the crowd, it’s impossible not to. Felix’s set expression softens and Zoe links arms. We are a small chain of togetherness in the midst of unexpected beauty. The old man’s eyes have yet to open, his face shuttered, fingers speaking through the keys. Felix fishes around in his pocket for a note and I follow suit. Bending to place the paper bills in the upturned hat I notice the torn refuse bag by the man’s feet. As he presses the peddles of the old piano his belongings rustle in the plastic bag that contains his world.
Santos hums. A steady stream of people flow in and out of the wide doors, open to the warm evening. Small clusters of friends sit around tables sipping drinks, others stand talking and laughing, bottles of island beer in hand. Strings of lights shaped like red chilli peppers hang from the overhead veranda and tables glow with votive candles.
Inside the crowd is thicker and the light low. The scene slow and syrupy, filtered through the low reggae beat. Despite the crush of bodies, the atmosphere is relaxed. At the bar is a three deep line of patiently waiting locals. Behind the bar Bastian pours, mixes, uncorks and serves drinks twice as fast as anyone else. The Santos staff are at full capacity. There are six bodies serving including Josefina and Jed. As we weave our way through the crowd I see Sadie balancing a tray of glasses heading back toward the bar.
“God, I hope it doesn’t get any busier.” Zoe leans in. “Bastian will put us to work.”
I’m thinking that actually that might be a nice option. I’d like a reason to be busy, to forget that the last time I was here at night was St. Cloud Fiesta, a lifetime ago. And although the world has turned since then, all around these smells and sounds are the same.
Felix, a head above the line at the bar is noticed by Bastian who grins broadly; one night like this and he can take a month off. “Nice crowd.” Felix reaches a hand out to high five Bastian.
“Who’d have thought young Raife had so many fans?” Bastian is passing drinks over the bar to Felix, quickly moving on to next in line, no time for small talk.
I take my bottle of cold beer from Felix’s outstretched arm thinking that Raife’s looks may have a lot to do with the turn out. But then Raife is a local, a boy born and bred in St. Cloud. He must still be a familiar face to many. People will be curious to see what he’s been doing since he left, to see if he’s made good. And if he has they’ll say he’s a good St. Cloud boy; it’s all down to his roots. If he bombs they’ll say he should never have left.
We clink bottles and try to chat above the noise but I’m only half listening. Santos is a sensory overload and my existence for a while has been closeted. I want to watch and smell and listen and feel my way around this forgotten world, and so as Zoe chats in my ear I listen distractedly. Bound with threads of anticipation and anxiety I wriggle my toes, feel my feet firm on the dusty bar floor and breathe. It’s all okay. I’m okay. I’m holding on and moving on, and today someone wants to publish my book.
“What are you smiling about?” Dan nudges my shoulder. He looks around the bar with a disapproving eye. “God, who are all these people?”
“Nice to see you too.” I smile as he frowns, a perfect picture of gloomy couture. “Who’s ruffled your feathers?”
“Is that the problem?”
He breaks into a small smile but doesn’t answer as Felix moves in offering drinks and man banter. Zoe is talking about Freya and the boys and to my shame I’m half listening again; on the small stage area I see Jack.
In a pale grey t-shirt and old jeans, he moves in and out of the light, carrying an amp, arranging some wiring, then connecting what seems like too many instruments and speakers on such a small stage. His expression is composed and careful.
Dan and I are pressed closely side by side; dreamy and grumpy, two gnomes left behind by Snow-White. “Ginny told me to tell you she won’t be coming.” He slugs his beer, eyes straight ahead, fixed on the stage set up.
“Why not? She promised she’d be here.”
“Well, she’s not.” His arms are folded tightly across his chest.
“Okay.” Eyebrows raised I give a sideways glance toward Zoe, who grins looking relaxed and radiant. What’s up with him? I mouth silently, signalling my eyes toward old gloomy couture.
She shrugs and throws a peanut at Dan’s head. “What’s going on Dan? Had a rough day?” The peanut bounces off his forehead and plops into his drink. Zoe gives him no time to react, which I suspect from the look on his face is a good move. “Did you see that?” She nudges Felix, shaking her head in awe of her aim.
I try not to giggle, and when I turn back to Dan he’s gone. As the lights dim and the crowd begin to clap, I see the back of his golden head at the edge of the bar.
One perfect halo of light shines down on a stool set centre stage, the crowd are shadows as noise falls away replaced by expectant hush. Then there’s Raife, all alone, head down, taking his time, tuning his guitar. Suddenly he flashes a smile and starts to play. It’s a long, acoustic solo, fingers picking a melody, the sound so simple yet complete that when he starts to sing I’m taken by surprise. His voice contrasts the clarity of chords so perfectly the sounds seem made for each other. It’s that sweet and salty contrast, perfection in polar extremes; the broken scratchy voice amidst the clear, melodic tune. With each chord his voice catches and pulls across the melody. Where the guitar guides the song his voice blurs the edges of the notes and there’s magic in the sound.
It takes the entire first song, start to finish before I can look away. In music Raife is transformed, all the edges have fallen away and I realise for the first time since I met him, he sounds sincere. Now those eyes match the words, there’s no hiding and what’s even lovelier is his apparent lack of self-consciousness. Maybe it’s another act, so well-practiced he’s got me truly fooled, but I can’t help feel that what I see and hear are real, that there are no games or pretence, that this expression through music is true.
All around me are wide, dreamy eyes, every face angled toward Raife. Zoe takes a long, deep breath and Felix catches my eye, shrugging his shoulders and smiling. From Felix this is praise in the lesser known language of grunty male. He can’t get too enthusiastic over anything that doesn’t involve a drum set and a bass guitar. Felix doesn’t have long to wait, after a few solo acoustic numbers leaving lady folks with their tongues lolling Raife brings a few local musicians on to the stage to join him.
In no time the energy has changed completely as two more guitars, a banjo and a full drum set ramp up the sound. Soon people are dancing, the bar gets busier and the air thicker. Raife stands, his guitar strapped across his body, strumming, foot keeping time and singing along with the band. They play like they’ve been together for years and I can’t help but wonder what the hell Raife has been doing. Why isn’t he signed up by a label and making a living from this. I’d put money on his success and if his reception in Santos is any reflection so would most.
Zoe has dragged Felix up to dance. Jed who has been bopping around behind the bar has made a dash for the dancefloor with Sadie. Poor Felix looks a little lost, trying not to stand out too much even though he’s a head and shoulders above most. I can’t bring myself to dance, tonight it just feels good to watch. I look for Dan and see him at the far side of the bar, leaning against the wall, eyes on the stage, sipping beer from a long necked bottle looking sulky and drunk.
A hand settles on my shoulder and I turn to meet Jack standing close behind me.
“Hey.” I reach for his hand and give it a small squeeze and he pulls me gently back toward him, his hand moving slowly to my waist.
“You okay?” He leans his head carefully toward my ear so I can hear him over the music. I nod and smile, grateful he’s here. Jack doesn’t dance, this I know for sure. Jack Kelly doesn’t dance and I don’t think I could bear to watch if he ever did.
“He’s pretty good.” Jack gestures toward the stage where Raife shines.
Jack nods, his fingers moving gently along my waist.
There’s a buzz of electricity that spreads from his fingertips and I focus on the sweaty dancers, feeling a blush rise to my cheeks. My heart is suddenly beating in my knickers. Oh God, I’m sure he must know. I am a lusty desperate woman. Blushing, I quickly cover my face with my hands.
“Nothing,” I speak through a small gap in my fingers. “I’m hot.”
“Do you want me to take you home?”
My hands drop quickly from my face. Am I that transparent?
“Yes.” I turn around crimson-faced. “I mean no.” Placing a palm on my forehead I take a slow deliberate breath and ask my heart to return from my knickers to my chest cavity. “Maybe I’ll just have a drink.”
Jack smiles and my wayward heart flutters happily. That’s the smile I love, not the composed expression of before but this. This smile, reserved for me, a smile that never seems rehearsed or planned. His eyes sparkle in the dim light, he’s teasing.
“What?” I frown, thoughts manifest in a glitzy sign above my head. Horny, in flashing capitals with an arrow pointing my way.
I’m about to answer when there’s a small commotion to our right. Someone has stumbled, and as they struggle to right themselves they pull over a few more chairs and spill a few drinks. Through the heads, I can just about see a crumpled version of Dan. He raises a hand in greeting and stumbles again. Jack reaches to steady him and Dan grabs hold, pulling himself toward us, hand by hand up the length of Jack’s arm. Trying to right his tall body he slings an arm around Jack’s shoulders and sets his face. It’s the overly serious face of one who’s really believes no-one has noticed they’re drunk.
“You okay champ?” Jack asks.
“Never been better.”
Dan’s expression is flabby and un-composed. I’ve never seen him like this. “Want to sit down?” I offer.
“Let’s go outside and get some air.” Jack begins to steer Dan toward the doors.
Raife has just announced he and the band are taking a break and sweaty bodies move from the dance floor to the bar or outside to the veranda.
“Think I need another drink.” Dan gestures toward the bar.
“Come on buddy, let’s have a breather first.” Jack doesn’t wait for Dan’s reply but steers him around toward the door. I lock arms on his opposite side and together we guide him through the crowd and out into the night air.
There are as many people outside as in, and no seats to be had. Jack leads our wobbling threesome out toward the sidewalk where together we lower Dan to sit on the kerb. The road is wide and few cars pass. Beyond the tarmac, the line of palms and long stretch of beach is endless ocean. We sit side by side, elbows on knees, the sounds of Santos behind us and the dark glint of waves under moonlight ahead.
“Did I just fall over?” Dan murmurs.
“You did.” Jack answers.
I giggle and turn to look at poor Dan. This out of control behaviour is very unlike him. “Do you want us to take you home?” I squeeze his leg. “You’re not yourself, I…”
“And who the hell am I?” I flinch at his tone, he’s angry. “Tell me sweetheart? Because…” he pauses and his face clouds. He turns to me concerned, “Did I just yell? God, I’m an ass! And you know what else?” We listen, stunned by his outburst. “I hate this place, I’m sick of it. We never move on.” He gestures to Jack. “None of us. No-one ever moves on.”
“Come on Dan, lighten up.” says Jack ignoring the jibe.
“What’s to move on from? I love it here! I’m going nowhere,” I sling an arm around him. “Anyway, you love this place more than anyone, you can’t go anywhere. How would we all survive?” I lean in and kiss him on the cheek.
“I hate my life.”
“Oh my God, now you’re being melodramatic.” I give him a good nudge in the ribs. “Come on now desperado, you’re killing my night out.”
“I need to move on.”
“Have you been on the whisky?” I lean past Dan whose head rests in his hands and stage whisper to Jack. “My step-Dad, Cam gets really depressing after too much whisky.” I’m about to offer some more sage advice to Dan when we’re interrupted.
“Hey kids, what’s all this? Are you coming back inside?” It’s Zoe, all smiles.
“No, I’m depressed.” Dan mutters into his hands as Jack claps him heartily on the back.
Felix and Jed are close behind armed with more drinks. We stand up and take the cold bottles, drinking thirstily, happy for the distraction. Everyone is buzzing from the music and the atmosphere.
Raife approaches, just managing to avoid the table of ladies vying for his attention. “Thanks for the beer,” he claps Felix’s shoulder. There’s a flurry of compliments and more back slapping as everyone tells Raife how great he is. Everyone I notice, apart from Jack. He has turned back to the kerbside seat and is side by side with Dan.
Minutes later there’s a call over the sound system, Raife starts, intermission over. “Best get back up there.” Running a hand through his golden hair he dazzles us with a smile and turns to leave. And as I watch I see something flicker in his eyes as he catches sight of Jack and Dan sitting behind us facing the street, his smile is gone.
Everyone is talking and beginning to head back inside, but Raife ducks around and bends down behind Dan and Jack. Jack nods and stands as Raife leans in to Dan. Jack is heading toward me, he smiles gently and gestures toward Santos but I’m distracted as behind him I see Dan shake his head and give Raife the finger.
Undeterred Raife jogs past, winks at me and weaves through the remaining crowd to reach the stage where he hops up, nods to the band and begins to play. In the doorway I look back but Dan’s gone and I’m swallowed by the crowd, the music and mayhem before I can worry much more. Raife plays on. Santos is at capacity and all around people dance, sing and laugh fuelled by the magic that accompanies great music.
I lean into Jack and feel the night around me.
It’s 1.00 am when I stumble through the door, and not because I’m sozzled but because I’m bone achingly tired, my feet throb and ears buzz. The taxi beeps its horn as it reverses out of the drive and I hear Zoe shouting something unintelligible. Poor thing, she’ll be up and down with a baby whilst I get to sleep late, no kids for me in the morning. The thought is wild, and the brief feeling of freedom has me whoop out loud. But there’s no whoop in response, no-one to party with, and that’s probably a good thing. I’m too tired for shenanigans.
Humming, I kick off my shoes and do a little twirl. Throwing my bag on the sofa I whoop again remembering the letter folded neatly inside. I take a run and jump on to the sofa belly first, rugby tackle the bag and fish out the letter to read again, then again, then once more this time out loud. Sighing happily, I’m asleep on the sofa with the letter clutched to my chest in approximately three and a half minutes.
My hazy half-formed dream features Billie Skylark the critically acclaimed, hugely successful writer. I have dark-framed, uber-cool glasses, hair in a messy bun secured with a pencil and I’m wearing some smart, but casual, clever outfit, featuring a matching pashmina draped casually around relaxed but terribly assured shoulders. I’m being interviewed for Mindfood magazine and I’m trying not to intimidate the interviewer with my wit and intellect. Just as the photographer arrives on the scene I get a bad feeling, the foreboding gloom that descends when part of your brain figures out you’re actually dreaming. Damn, something is not right, the pashmina is gone and looking down I can see my elegant pumps have been replaced by very bad HI Tec trainers; so not the look I’m going for. I smile anyway but the photographer who has been a little blurry till now swims into focus. It’s Evan and he smiles conspiratorially, his hair has grown, now he’s the one with the messy bun, a pencil behind his ear saying loudly. I hate my life, I’ve got to move on, no-one ever fucking moves on.
I wake abruptly, gasping, the precious letter crumpled and damp in my hand. Dan. Sleepily I fish around for my phone and text him: Hope ur ok, call me tomorrow after Advil. Bx.
I wait for a moment just in case he might miraculously be awake and text me right back, but he doesn’t and I pad through the dark house to bed, wishing I’d gone to sleep there in the first place.
When I feel his hand on my leg I know it’s time.
He has come to me, he’s ready. I stretch lazily, welcoming him like I’d always known he’d be here. He lies behind me, a hand stroking my leg, up and down, slow and steady. He is my future and I’m ready. His hand travels up, grazing a breast, moving to my throat where a single finger traces lines back and forward, shoulder, collarbone, neck, pausing on my lips. He whispers something I can’t make out, my mind still heavy with sleep, words float and rise to the ceiling where the overhead fan spins and sends them back, rearranged and indistinct.
Again the hands and their gentle caress, I reach to touch them and here time stops. Reality crashes through the imagined dream and my head swims desperately for the surface. These hands are not Jack’s and I am not dreaming.
The gasp before the scream sucks the air from the dark bedroom and powers my lungs with a force borne of instinct. The sound is terrifying, fear driven and desperate. As the scream fades my body is transformed; from rigid to feral and I lunge and kick, scrabbling my way off the bed. But nothing happens, there is no counter reaction, the intruder doesn’t move or speak, doesn’t try to run or wrestle me to the ground. Terrified I grab the book on the nightstand and hurl it toward the still figure, there’s a muffled moan as I lunge for the light switch.
Lying on his side, propped comfortably on an elbow is Raife. He watches me carefully, one hand rubbing his jaw, a slow smile creeping across his face.
“I thought you were enjoying it. You could have said, that hurt.” He rubs his head, The Grapes of Wrath lies spread-eagled on the floor, the spine broken and pages scattered.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I’m leaning against the window, trying to cover myself with a sheet as he continues to smile and stare. “How dare you let yourself in. Get out! Get out before I call the cops.”
“Billie.” He says my name with such familiarity, like we’re lovers having a small tiff. “Don’t be like that. Come back in here, shut the light off and we’ll carry on. Jack won’t ever have to know.”
“Are you insane? Get out!” I’m shaking, my voice breaks. “Get out.”
“Come on baby, I know what you need. I see the way you look at Jack, I know you leave the door open for him every night. I’ve been watching. But he’s not interested, never was.”
“Shut up and get out.”
Raife sits up slowly, raising both hands in a gesture of surrender. “Okay, I’m going. It might have been nice for both of us you know.” He shrugs looking vaguely bored. “You’re not really my type anyway.”
I’m so angry I want to hurt him. How dare he? I dive toward him and swing as hard as I can, but he’s too quick and is up off the bed, leaving me to fall sideways, my fist making contact with the wall. Pain radiates through my hand as I scramble to my feet, swinging for him again.
It’s then that I hear the banging; loud, angry banging coming from the deck. I open my mouth to scream his name but find my voice is gone. Another bang and a dull thud as a shoulder makes contact with the door. Raife doesn’t move and I wait, terrified of what will happen next and what this must look like.
Raife stands by the side of the bed, arms folded, waiting patiently. Huddled on the floor, wrapped in a sheet I sob. I know now that this was Raife’s intention, to create the scene and wait for Jack. I hear him call my name loudly, his footsteps racing through the house. As he bursts through the door, the world is still for one interminably long second. In a glance he sees me half naked on the floor sobbing and Raife standing by the bed, eyes dark, face impassive.
“Don’t you ever knock Jack?”
Raife is about to grin, about to try and spin his story and make Jack hurt, but the words never make it to his lips. The punch is so hard Raife’s feet leave the ground. Jack barely looks at him before bending toward me, lifting me up. “Are you okay?” I can’t talk through my tears and bury my head into his shoulder as he holds me. “Tell me you’re okay, please…are you okay?”
I nod and he lays me on the bed before turning to Raife who is getting slowly to his feet. Jack doesn’t wait, he pulls him up roughly but Raife is ready and takes a hard punch at Jack’s gut. He doubles over and Raife slaps him across the back of the head. The action so disrespectful it is more shocking than the punches that follow.
I scream at them to stop, but my voice drowns in the swirling fury of the room. Time stretches and contracts, and all around is the dull thud of blood in my ears and the impact of fist on bone.
Raife seems to deflate, the will to fight gone with the last hard punch. Jack’s fist makes contact with his stomach and he doubles over. Before he can fall Jack grabs his shoulders and pins him to the wall, a glass framed photo of me and Evan shatters and hits the floor.
Raife blinks dazed, he nods slowly, tongue licking a small trail of blood that trickles from the corner of his mouth. I don’t look up till he’s gone.
It’s a while before I’m calm. Raife has taken off in Jack’s truck, the doors are locked and curtains pulled. Jack has bathed my hand and strapped it. I’m clothed in warm sweats, with a hot cup of tea and we sit side by side on the sofa.
“I thought he was you.”
Jack closes his eyes and leans forward, elbows on knees, letting his hands run through his hair. “I heard you scream, I couldn’t get in, I…” his hands are shaking, “You should press charges, we need to call the cops.”
“I’m so sorry Billie.”
“It wasn’t you.”
“But he was trying to get at me, it’s my fault.”
“I don’t understand, what do you owe him?” He shakes his head but doesn’t answer.
“No, he didn’t.”
“What a fucking mess.” He lowers his head again, hands rubbing the top of his scalp, he takes a long slow breath. “I want to kill him.”
“What happened between you two?”
Jack turns away and I reach for his shoulder to pull him around, his eyes are closed. Without thinking I crawl into his lap and he buries his face in my hair whispering he’s sorry over and over. I find his mouth and kiss him slowly and he returns the kiss with such tenderness I almost forget the drama that brought us this. He kisses me again and there’s desperation in the act; words he won’t say, the act a step toward their delivery.
Later, we fall asleep entwined on the sofa once again, and when I wake the light is new. We are face to face, my head rests on his arm, chests almost touching, legs twisted. Jacks eyes are open and despite the nights events his eyes clear.
“I love you.” He pushes my hair back from my face and a tear escapes, sliding carefully toward his fingers.
“I love you too.” I touch his cheek and wince, my bandaged hand tender and aching.
“Want to hear a story?”
I nod and close my eyes. “It’s my favourite thing.”
I know the decision to talk has lightened the load he carries. Whatever he tells me will be okay, I have prepared in my head for this story many times.
“When I was seventeen I killed Raife’s girlfriend.”