News travels fast, and by lunchtime everyone has heard how Ginny and Dan helped Jack deliver Jess’s baby from the store room in Beaujangles. It’s a source of great excitement in the café all day.
My first reaction is not to laugh as it seems most others are doing. Although picturing Ginny and Dan in the store room talking Jack through labour via cell phone does make me smile. The story made me cry. Of course, this is no local newsflash; I am the woman whose default setting is the quiet sob.
Just imagining Jack, and Jess, his adored sister-in-law. Imagining the scene, the beauty of new life and that Jack helped bring his little niece into the world. It’s just so beautiful, I was sobbing for most of the telling. Of course Ginny who was terribly proud of herself rolled her eyes and moved on to tell Zoe the details, hoping for a reaction more in keeping with her magnificence as an on-call midwife.
Dan had been having his usual morning coffee in Beaujangles when he got the call from Jack. As luck would have it Ginny was walking past, heading to work. Dan yelled out of the window, pulled her inside and together they fielded the call. Beaujangles had been busy and Jed was a little nervous with the loud talk of vaginas, contractions and placentas and had ushered them into the storeroom. The story goes that as the baby was born Dan came running from the storeroom hands in the air shouting joyfully for all to hear, It’s a girl, we did it, it’s a girl!
I haven’t spoken to Jack since and neither has anyone else, no doubt his family are celebrating the birth together. The first of a new generation, maybe the baby might give Jack’s mother a lift.
Tonight I’ve invited the gang over for takeaways and drinks to celebrate the fabulous threesome; Jack, Dan and Ginny. Even though Jack’s not here we’ll celebrate on his behalf. I scoot around the chaos of the living room, chucking toys in boxes or under the sofa. I have no time to vacuum crumbs and so, to my shame, lift the edge of the rug and sweep the mess underneath.
I’m done. Kids are in bed, wine is chilling, takeaway menus are to hand and all that’s missing is Jack. I pour myself a wine and sink into the sofa. God, I miss him. What if he doesn’t come back? What if he decides to stay away from the drama and hurt and complications I bring? Maybe too much lies between us. I must face the reality; I love him but may never have him.
There’s a gentle knock at the door, a welcome interruption to my thoughts.
“Hey,” Dan’s handsome face appears around the corner. “Tell me I’m not the first, it’s so not my style.”
“You’re the first.” I smile and pat the space on the sofa beside me.
“Glasses on the counter.”
“That’s my girl.” He grabs a glass and brings the wine. “Well, it’s been a quite a day.” He opens the red and pours himself a generous glass. Catching me smiling he frowns. “I deserve it.”
“You so do.” I squeeze his thigh as he rests back beside me, glass to hand.
“Would you look at us, like an old married couple.” He slings his free arm around my shoulder. “…but not really.”
“Sometimes, I think it would all be easier just to…not.” I look at him like he should get it.
“Too not have to want people. To be content on our own.” I nudge him affectionately. “Like you and me, remove the whole attraction/love/soul mate thing and it’s easy.”
He’s looking at me like I have a large pimple on my nose, a little interested but mostly disgusted. “No darling, it would be dull. To love, one must live and to live one must truly love…or something like that.”
“Did you just make that up?”
“I think so. Anyway, that’s what you need to remember, in amongst all that ‘Billie angst’…”
“I don’t have ‘Billie angst’!” I slap him on the arm, offended. But I’m frowning. “Do I?”
“Come on, it’s the writer in you, don’t fret. Life never goes your way, and I don’t just mean you, I mean all of us. It doesn’t go our way only because we’ve been silly enough to make a way. Do you see what I mean?” I shrug, sort of with him, sort of not. “I mean, when you stop thinking you can decide the best way, it takes a load off. If you tell yourself that every happy moment, every problem, challenge, bump on the road was always meant to be there. It’s a hell of a lot easier.”
The door knocks again, Dan’s philosophical speech interrupted. He sighs and settles back on the sofa as I go to greet our friends.
Ginny arrives, closely followed by Jed and Sadie. Then Felix and Zoe, who to my delight have managed to sort out a sitter. Soon my dearest friends are spread around the living room floor, drinking wine or beer, eating take-aways from plastic cartons, taking loudly and laughing.
We toast Jack and his new found capabilities in baby delivery. We toast Dan and Ginny and their role in the drama. We toast Sadie and Jed whose big day looms only a few weeks away. I’m sure we toast pretty much everyone and everything we can.
It’s the first time we’ve all been together like this since the night Zoe gave birth. It’s a night only for happiness. No-one talks of Evie and Louie, of illness and life expectancy. We don’t mention absent husbands; cheating or dead. It’s a night to be thankful, and we are, and I realise that I’m not trying to be happy, this is not an act. It’s no longer the act as if until. I am in the until. I am happy, genuinely and truly happy.
It’s midnight when everyone leaves, everyone except my darling Dan. Together we wash the plates and glasses, both a little tiddly and talkative.
“Jack told you right?”
Dan turns to me, dishtowel in hand, eyes terribly serious. “Raife was my first.” I watch him recalling a distant memory. “It was like the world changed, I’d finally figured it out.”
I nod, yellow rubber gloves submerged in soapy water. “What did you figure out?”
“That I wasn’t really different. I wasn’t a misfit. I did fit, just not where most people expected. It was a relief.” He sighs, mopping his hot forehead with the dishtowel. “I can’t tell you what a relief.”
“And did you…” I pause, unsure of how to word my question. “Did you…?”
“I didn’t love him, if that’s what you’re asking. I thought I did, for a long time. Funny how your first time stays with you. I used to dream about him, even though I suspected he probably hated me. I’d screwed it all up for him, he couldn’t pretend anymore, not really.”
“No, it’s not an Oh Dan, he did me a favour Billie. For a long time I was angry with him for being a coward. Now I suppose I’m just sad it all turned out so badly for him.”
“We didn’t speak, the accident was the next night and then everything went crazy. When he took off to the States I thought it was for the best. I didn’t really think about Jack and what might happen.”
My hands are white with soap suds, holding them aloft I examine those sparkling bubbles. “Poor Jack.”
Dan claps his hands together and I jump. He grabs me by the shoulders, my yellow rubber gloves pressed together as though in prayer. “You, my girl, are beautiful.” He curtsies before me. “And trust me when I say, you will get everything you deserve.” I roll my eyes. He releases me and snaps his fingers at the stereo. “Just one dance then I must go fair maiden.”
I curtsey in reply. The stereo kicks off and we’re soon dancing to the Dixie Chicks like an old couple. We waltz, holding each other up until the wild chorus when the banjo and harmonicas kick in. Then, with no-one watching we dance like a pair of crazy teenagers.
When he leaves at 1.30 am, I kiss him on both cheeks and tell him he’s the best boyfriend I ever had. He bows and leaves with an extravagant wave. And I think it must be true that we make our families where we go, we choose them and they choose us, and together we forge familial bonds that hold us together. This way, home is never far away.
That night I dream like I used to, those vivid dreams of before when Evan was here.
There are birds, there are always birds; skylarks above, circling and flying in great flocks that create patterns in the air. Shapes and letters, like a message I can’t read. I’m standing in a white nightdress, in the middle of the yard watching the flocks above me swoop and dive in the evening sky.
“I can’t read it!” I yell impatiently to the heavens. “Make them stop.” But the skylarks don’t stop and I’m getting upset. I want to figure out what he’s trying to tell me. “Evan!” I call his name and the dream changes. Just like that, like the Magic Faraway Tree and the world above its topmost branch, everything is different in an instant.
The light is bright all around, like the dawn of a new day, and my heart feels happy and light. I look up for the skylarks but they’re gone. I search the skies but they’re empty; all is quiet and still and the light grows brighter by the second. Turning slowly to face the old gum tree I see a single bird fly from its branches, something pale and indistinct caught in its beak. I raise my hand to the bird, following its flight with the tips of my fingers as it leaves a paper trail in its wake.
Like Hansel and Gretel, I’m in a forest chasing the bird and the paper trail. Each piece has one letter, the letter forms a message. I run and I run, picking them up, holding them in order, desperate to read the message that’s been left for me.
Something’s happening, the forest is falling around me and the sky above looks strangely like my bedroom ceiling. Sunny stands by the bed, pulling my hand. “Mommy, I had an accident.”
I sit bolt upright exhaling one long, shaky breath. I am awake and Sunny has peed, metaphorically on the cryptic message his dead Daddy was trying to deliver. I smile sleepily and I scoop him up. Heading dozily to the bathroom I decide to go easy on wine before bed.
“For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one.”
Amandine’s body is found at dawn the next day, washed up on the beach, dressed in her dancing clothes.
The discovery is made by a local fisherman on a small beach to the east of the island. Jack and Raife identify her body and arrange the small ceremony in Saul’s orchard where they will say their goodbyes.
For those few days between, the days before they really let her go, Amandine is everywhere.
Jack can smell her fragrance, hear her voice calling, and her soft hum, always the same song in French; ‘Quand le soleil dit bonjours au montagnes. When the sun says hello to the mountains.’ You’d know she was happy when she hummed that song. He hears it now in the trees, in the waves and on the breeze.
Every place, every corner, every object is a jagged memory. Suddenly everything is associated with her. He knows it’s his inability to let her go. He wants to feel her everywhere because it can’t last. She’s gone and soon her image will fade and he’ll struggle to see her face and hear her voice. The thought is heart-breaking.
Losing her removes an anchor from his world, a vital root that held him, gone forever. Now comes the crushing grief, the helpless despair and irretrievable loss before the slow acceptance that he must live on in a world without her. The wrench leaves Jack and his brothers lost and broken. They must find a new way, readjust their footing on the earth and move on slowly. Each day a careful step in a new and different world.
There are moments when he believes he might wake, that none of it is real, but as the days pass the feeling fades. This morning they must say goodbye. He’s come to the beach to see the sunrise, maybe that’s what she’d done. Maybe this was the last thing she saw.
At the far end of the beach walks a familiar figure, strolling along the water’s edge, eyes on the sunrise. Noticing Jack, Raife raises a hand in greeting and walks to meet him. Together they walk in comfortable silence. Bets races back along the sand and drops a piece of drift wood at Raife’s feet. Smiling, he stoops, picks up the wood and tosses it out into the breaking waves. She barks and chases it into the surf and they watch as she disappears under each wave, only to reappear as the surf crashes over. Her small wet head emerging between surges, her legs paddling furiously under the water to catch up with the drifting stick. Finally, she reaches it, and with the treasure lodged firmly between her teeth she turns and swims for shore.
“I’m sorry about Louie.” Raife’s eyes on Bets as she fights the rip.
Bets surfaces dripping, and proudly drops the drift wood at Raife’s feet. As he bends to pick it up she shakes violently, showering them both in sea water and dog hair.
“Jesus Bets!” Raife wipes his face. “Damn crazy dog.” He hurls the drift wood with force and watches it spin then plummet down into the foamy surf. Bets barks ecstatically and races after it once more.
“What are you going to do?” Jack’s arms fold across his chest and his gaze follows Bets as she swims.
“Have a shower.”
“After the shower?”
“Help scatter Mama’s ashes.”
Jack sighs. “And after that?”
“Hell Jack, I don’t know.” Raife rubs his face wearily and sinks to sit on the sand. “So far none of my plans have turned out too well.” Jack raises his eyebrows and Raife shrugs. “Okay so far I haven’t worked to much of a plan. I don’t do plans.”
“How’s that working out for you?”
“Yeah well.” Raife takes a long, slow breath. “Might be time I made a few changes.”
“You sticking around?”
“For a while. Maybe I’ll give Saul a hand here, keep Papa company.” He nods as though the idea has only just occurred to him and he likes it.
“That’s a good plan.” Jack frowns as he turns to Raife. “But you’ll need to work. If you’re staying Saul will expect you to pull your weight.”
“Thanks for the advice Mr Got it all figured out. I can manage.” Jack stiffens. “Sorry, I’m trying Jack. Give me some time, being an asshole comes so easily.” Raife forces a smile. “Listen, I want to make a fresh start and I know you do. I don’t want to keep hashing over the same shit forever, but…”
“But?” Jack shrugs.
“For beating the shit out of me, for letting me stay.” Raife stoops to throw the drift wood back into the waves. “For giving me another chance even though I sure as hell didn’t deserve one, not from you.” Jack raises his hands to fend off the apology he can’t manage, but Raife ignores him. “I know how hard I made things for you. I wanted to hurt you. I know how wrong that was.”
“I know.” Raife’s eyes are wet. “But she didn’t.” He looks away, wiping his eyes with the back of his hand. “Mama didn’t know. You know how happy it would have made her, knowing we’d made peace, knowing we’d moved on. She never fucking knew and it’s because I’ve been a selfish asshole, hell bent on blaming the world for everything. I fucked up and she’ll never know I’m sorry.”
He stands slowly reaching out to clap Jack on the shoulder. Jack steadies his arm, holding it firm before pulling him into an awkward embrace. There is more intimacy in the exchange than they’ve shared in a decade. When Jack loosens his grip Raife holds on, head lowered, shoulders shaking. The tide creeps in around their ankles and Bets barks, pushing her wet nose against Jack’s bare legs.
“Look at me.” Jack holds Raife’s shoulders, easing him back. Reluctantly Raife looks up. “We’ll be alright.” Jack raises a hand and holds it against the side of his brothers’ tear stained face. Raife nods and they stand together on the beach till fingers of sunlight prise open the day bringing light, warmth and peace.
It’s barely 6 am when Jack enters the kitchen. Now the light outside is bright, the sun a hopeful pink laced orange as it breaks the horizon line. As he pours coffee Saul tiptoes into the kitchen with a tiny bundle cradled in his arms.
“Get any sleep?”
Saul shrugs, eyes on the baby. “A little, Jess is sleeping now.” He shakes his head and looks up at Jack with a sad smile. Jack nods, knowing that Saul, for now is not thinking of his brave wife, who sleeps upstairs. The sadness suggests the thoughts are of their mother.
“We failed her.” Saul’s dark eyes rest on their parents’ home across the orchard.
“We did our best.”
“You were here for her Saul. You’ve nothing to feel sorry about.”
“Yeah, I was in charge right? And I let it slide thinking it would all be okay, she’d come right.” His jaw is clenched, his features tight as he speaks. “You want to know the truth Jack? I knew she wouldn’t come right, I knew what was going on, but I stuck my head in the sand.” His eyes cloud with shame. “It was all too fucking much. I was under pressure with the business, Jess was sick, and Dad was a pain in the ass, so I put it in the too hard basket. I thought we’d have time. Jess would have the baby and things would calm down. Then we’d get Mama sorted.” He stops and takes a long, slow breath, drawing his eyes away from their parents’ house. He looks up at Jack and his shoulders begin to shake. “I wasn’t watching.”
“None of us were, no-one was to know. At least you were here for her, you’ve always been around. Me and Raife, we were too busy feeling sorry for ourselves.”
Saul rubs a hand across his eyes and shakes his head but doesn’t answer.
“No-ones to blame Saul. It’s not that simple, and anyway it doesn’t help a damn.” Saul nods slowly and runs a finger down the baby’s smooth cheek. “Come on, let’s get some air. It’s a beautiful sunrise.” Jack pours Saul a steaming mug of coffee then opens the screen door leading to the porch. Saul follows, carrying the baby with the careful steps of the first time father. He lowers himself on to a porch chair facing the sunrise. “You going to get used to all this?” Jack smiles watching Saul, oversized and unshaven with the tiny sleeping baby. It’s a nice sight.
Saul grins. “Hope so, I’m screwed if I don’t?”
Jack sits on the rail, looking out over the orchard. “I’ll say.”
Together they watch the sun rise higher, colours changing and spreading. Joseph and Amandine’s house awakens as shade peels away to warm light. The baby stirs, Saul kisses her head and she settles back to sleep.
There’s movement over on the other porch, and as they watch they can see Joseph lifting something bulky, like a large box. He descends the front steps slowly with the box in his arms, and walks across the lawn to the place they have prepared for Amandine’s memorial. Just a grassy patch they’d tided and flattened and a hole ready to plant the Hibiscus tree. It would be simple: a blessing, they would plant the tree and scatter her ashes beneath.
Joseph has set the box down, but now he’s putting something together. After a minute he disappears back into the house, then reappears dragging a long chord behind him.
“What the hell is he doing?” Saul asks, Jack shrugs in reply. Joseph hasn’t spoken since they found Amandine. It’s hard to know how he’s doing.
The sound of Elvis Presley croons out over the orchard; “Love Me Tender,” and Jack realises the box is the old record player. It stands on four wooden legs, playing Elvis out into the early morning light.
Jack closes his eyes as a wave of grief takes his breath away. Saul stands and together with the baby they walk across the orchard, to Joseph who stands alone, head down, eyes closed.
“Papa.” Saul touches his shoulder and Joseph clasps a hand over Saul’s. Elvis sings and the three men and the baby stand in an awkward line, facing the old record player and the hole in the ground.
When the record finishes Joseph looks up, his eyes spilling over, he turns to Jack then back to Saul, “You’re good boys.” Reaching out he opens his arms for the baby, tenderly Saul hands her to him. He sinks slowly to his knees, eyes fixed on her tiny face and begins to cry.
Jack reflects later on the day, and how Amandine would have thought it perfect. A few friends and locals paying their respects, offering food and sympathy, flowers and kind words. They had planted the tree together, the three brothers and Joseph, there was quiet singing and then of course, there was Elvis.
And as the sun began its descent and the long day drew to a close he’d felt the change. Something powerful and whole, a feeling in his chest, a simple understanding that finally it was done. He had made his peace the best way he could, and it might not be enough, and it might have been too late, but he can do no more. It’s done, and now he might live.
After Evie and Sunny are asleep I gather a few boxes and bin bags and approach Evan’s studio, expression set but hands shaky.
It’s time to finally sort and clear out the room. It’s time to stop holding on, using the space as a quick fix, my phone line to the afterlife. The studio has become a presence, a solemn purveyor of sadness taking up more room in this house than it should. The decision to finally clear it was one I should have made a long time ago.
The truth is, I couldn’t until now; I needed some part of Evan with me. Despite the passage of time, my need for him kept hold. I needed him in death as much as I’d needed him in life, my life still somewhere in the subtext of his.
I can’t say what changed. There was no single event where an internal light bulb sprang to life. I didn’t step out into the world of the living and announce, I’m ready! There was no lip synching to I will survive, wearing a spangled leotard.
None of that. Instead life simply went on.
I am a walking cliché of shit happens, life goes on. Life goes on around me, and in that full and beautiful life there is more sadness, more joy, more death and more birth. And it’s impossible to remain in one place indefinitely. We adapt and learn, it’s in our nature, we become more resilient, less dependent and a little more grounded in the terrifying fact that life will ultimately go just the way it was always meant to.
And so, if I choose to take Dan’s advice and embrace life as it flows, then I must let Evan go and know it’s okay. This is also the way our story was meant to go. He can’t remain immortalised here in his studio any longer. I’m reminded of the skylark in the dream, scattering the message, letters on ripped paper. And I know in my heart Evan would want this; this new life for me and the twins.
Pushing open the door to the studio I inhale the gradually fading smells of linseed and wood shavings for the last time. I open the windows wide and begin to sort through everything that remains. Ruthlessly I bag all the things that must go, and box the few things that must stay. I will make a box each for Evie and Sunny, things to remember their Daddy by and with this in mind I tuck away sketches, brushes and a few small sculptures.
Fortified with the things I need to make the next step forward I drag furniture outside; his worktable and chair, the old metal storage shelves and a chest full of paints, charcoals, oil pastels, books and canvases. Dragging them as far as the garage I leave them to be dealt with later. With the studio clear I clip my iPod to my belt, plug in my earphones and turn up The Pogues; a suitable choice for the occasion. I sweep, dust, clean, mop and polish until eventually the room looks and feels new. Finally, with a cold beer to hand I sink to the floor in the middle of the empty room.
I sip the beer and look around at the transformation. A fresh start for an old room that deserves a change. The same could be said for me, and maybe that’s the point. Smiling I raise the bottle and toast Evan. Everything feels lighter.
Thank you. I say the words before consciously thinking them. I say them in response to a conversation I might be having with him on another plane. It would have gone a bit like this.
Me: I can’t’ keep up anymore.
Evan: I know.
Me: These wings I borrowed, they don’t fly. I’m giving them back.
Evan: I’m sorry baby.
Me: Me too, I’m just so tired.
Evan: Go on now.
Me: I love you.
Evan: It’s time.
It is time. I hear his voice teasing, his slow smile shining from each word, and one fat tear slides carefully down my cheek; just one. It’s time.
With a last burst of energy, I’m up, hurrying through to the toy cluttered living room. I drag the toy box, a throw rug, the doll’s house and lightsabres. I sort and arrange, organise and art direct and by 1.00 am the studio has become a playroom.
The Incredibles, Buzz Light-year and Dora the Explorer smile down from posters hastily pinned on plain walls. A small table and two little chairs await play dough artists, soft toys gather brightly in a corner on a polka dot beanbag, beside a bookshelf stacked with favourite stories. Admiring the transformation, I ask Evan what he thinks, but this time he doesn’t answer.
My heart is spectacularly light and until now I hadn’t realised what a dead weight it had become. Quietly, me and my fluttery, light, little heart head to bed.
No more tears.
I take a quick jab at an eye to be sure a rogue wet one hasn’t slipped out. Dry-eyed and weary I climb into bed. When I lean over to flip off the bedside light I notice in the corner of the room my copy of The Grapes of Wrath. An involuntary pang of anxiety reminds me why it’s there; face down, a few pages loose in its bindings. I had thrown it at Raife.
Funny, I was mad at John Steinbeck that night anyway. Before Raife turned up I’d only just finished the last few pages and I was mad. I’d stalled on reading the last chapter because it had all been so unbearably heart-breaking and I knew there was no happy ending.
But that night I’d been in such a good mood, after the night out in Santos with friends. I came home and believed that maybe I’d missed the deeper meaning, maybe somehow there was hope in Tom Joad’s story. Tucked up in bed I’d read that last chapter, and later slammed the book closed, feeling sad, and mad, and entirely unsatisfied.
I pick it up now and replace the torn pages back in their rightful spot. I flip back to Tom Joad’s speech to his Mama when he knows he’ll be dead soon, when he’s reassuring her in his simple way that she needn’t mourn him. When he’s gone she need only look around, because he’ll be everywhere, in everyone and everything; a little piece of a big soul.
I think of Evan and am comforted. Tonight I am saying goodbye but not really, because like Tom, Evan is everywhere; in our children, our home, in the ocean, and the sky.
“…a little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody.”
I read the last few pages again and understand them differently.
There is hope in the conclusion. The last scene: the offering of a mother’s milk to a dying man, an act of kindness and compassion amidst sorrow and despair. Hope at the possibility of a tomorrow, despite the bleakness of today and the beautiful flow of life between us all.
It’s not a happy ending but I don’t feel sad, not anymore, because life goes on, and where there is life, there is hope.