Sunlight frames her standing pose, hands resting playfully on tilted hips. Golden rays trace her silhouette and throw dazzling pinpoints of light on her shoulders.
All that light but he can’t see her face, she’s dark and in shadow. Her voice playful, teasing. “Come on Jack.” He’s on the ground looking up at her. Again: “Come on Jack.” He’s shaking his head and she’s laughing.
Another voice, strong and familiar. A voice used to getting its own way. “Come on Jack.” He won’t shake his head now. He’ll come - he always does. The light is eclipsed as Raife stands behind her. His height blocks the light and dwarfs her smaller body. His arms encircle from behind and he leans into her neck whispering in her ear. Still the light is gone; it hides behind him. They’re laughing at Jack but she holds out a delicate arm. She likes him; she likes all the guys. He reaches for her hand but Raife pulls her away.
All is dark and he can smell the rain. He’s driving and they’re beside him. She whispers in his ear smelling of sweet liquor and weed. Raife pulls her close, they’re fooling around. It’s so dark. He’s dizzy.
“Come on Jack.” Now, the words are angry and ugly. He turns to her in the dark. Raife’s gone and her words become loud and hysterical. He’s afraid. He reaches for her, pulling at the hands that cover her face. And there’s light everywhere, a thousand spotlights shine down on the scene. Illuminated and still, she is ghostly pale and expressionless. Eyes open but empty, an angry scar divides her perfect face, forehead to chin. Billie.
Jack’s eyes flash open in the dark. His face is damp. He breathes heavily, running a hand over his face, wiping his eyes. Reality returns slowly, breath by breath. This is home, this is his bed, this is his house and this dream is old.
He sits up and Bets rouses from her basket on the floor. “It’s okay girl.” He whispers as her eyes rise to meet him. Sensing all is well she flicks her tail, tucks it back under her curled body and settles back to sleep.
He won’t sleep for a while now. It’s the first time he’s had the dream in years.
Taking a long slow breath, he runs both hands through his damp hair before rising. Billie was never in the dream before. God, it’s having Raife around. He knew it would happen. With Raife here in St. Cloud, in this new part of his life, the past is too damn close. This is how he knew it would be. This is why Raife’s been running and he’s been hiding. It’s why Joseph hates him and why Amandine’s years of quiet sadness have turned in on her.
He thinks of his mother in the garden and absently rubs his chest where his heart hurts. Amandine, the family sentinel, her mind creeping toward a place where no-one can hurt her.
Outside the night is black. There are no stars to break the thick blanket of dark. Billie’s house is barely visible, a dark outline against the night on the other side of the yard. He wonders if she’s home, if she’s asleep there, or if maybe she decided to stay away, start again. Another escapee running from the past.
They’d arrived back in St. Cloud late last night. He’d brought Raife home in darkness and somehow it felt fitting. In the light of the coming morning he’ll decide what to do. He doesn’t have a plan, he never did, but he owes it to Raife to help. He sees that now. He’ll try to help his one last time and maybe then, he can let go.
In the kitchen he splashes his face with cold water and fills a glass. He hears Raife stir on the sofa. He mumbles, words too hard to define, his mind freed by sleep. He speaks again. The sounds are angry but the words jumbled. Jack watches his brother’s face as he dreams. In sleep Raife looks younger, free of anger and regret. He looks like he did in the dream: holding the girl, teasing his little brother.
Jack had wanted to stop in St. Eloise on the way back. Raife needs to see their parents. Jack had hoped a visit from their favourite son would bring Amandine some joy and Joseph some peace. But Raife said he didn’t feel good, he wanted to wait, get himself together.
He watches Raife turn restlessly on the sofa. It was a good idea coming here first. Raife needs some time. Jack needs time to talk to him about Amandine, prepare him for when he sees her, but he’s not sure how. He’ll let him settle a while, give him the time he’s asked for, then they’ll go together.
Refilling his glass, he hears a long sigh. Raife’s hands are behind his head, eyes open staring at the ceiling. “God this place is hot.”
“Did I wake you?”
“I don’t know if I was even asleep. There’s no air in here.” Raife sits up slowly and pulls his t-shirt over his shoulders, eases out of his trousers and throws them on the floor. “Was it always this hot?”
“Always.” Jack passes him the glass of cool water.
Raife drinks greedily, setting the glass down and sinking back. His long legs hang over the edge of the sofa, arms raised above his head in a cat-like stretch. “I don’t know if I can live here again.”
Jack walks to the window, looking out into the blackness. “You don’t have to.”
Raife sighs again, closing his eyes. “That’s right Jack, you’ve got all the answers.” There’s a long silence. Jack hopes Raife’s fallen back to sleep, he doesn’t feel like talking. But Raife isn’t done, he’s only thinking. “What do you do out here anyway? There’s nothing here, doesn’t it drive you crazy?”
Jack’s gaze rests on the outline of Billie’s house. “Sometimes.”
“Then why’d you stay? You’ve got nothing here, nothing real. No-one would notice if you stopped building boats. Can’t be much business for you.” He yawns and sighs again.
“I like it here. I don’t need any more.” Jack works on keeping the edge from his voice.
“You got a girl?” Jack doesn’t answer and Raife laughs, “You’re not still screwing around with…what was her name?” Jack remains quiet. “Jesus.” Raife laughs again. “You should remember! You married her. God that’s funny.” He shakes his head, enjoying the joke. “You and her married, what was that about anyway?”
“Shut the fuck up will you?”
Raife knows just how to push his buttons. Claudia, the girl he’d married young after she’d told him she was pregnant. What had started as a drunken fling ended in a shit load of despair. A miserable year, there had never been a baby. When he left she took everything, and he didn’t care, he just wanted her gone. Back then Claudia was another bad decision he’d had to live with.
“Take it easy. I’m playing with you.”
Jack rubs a hand over his eyes. “Do you know what a pain in the ass it is having you here?”
Raife smiles, eyes closed again. “I can guess.”
“Well, how about we make a deal. While you’re here, sorting your shit out - stay out of my shit.”
“I get it. Relax, you never used to be so uptight. Don’t worry, I’ll stay out of your business. Nothing much to stay out of by the looks of it.” Raife pulls the sheet up over his chest. “Soon you’ll be begging me not to leave.”
Jack shakes his head and walks back to the bedroom. “Good night…oh, and when you wake up tomorrow, try not be an asshole.”
“Will do Jackie-boy.”
Ten minutes later Jack can hear the quiet snores of his brother. It’s another hour before he falls into a fitful sleep. Rising early, before dawn, he’s happy to hear the gentle calling of a native bird in the trees singing the morning in. It’s a joyous sound and he’s missed it, the gentle melody ringing out in the dark. As the light lifts the others will join, and the air will be full of chatter and birdsong. Jack is sure of one thing; he is where he belongs, and despite everything - it is home.
There’s a scene in The Grapes of Wrath where Steinbeck writes about Tom Joad meeting the old preacher, Jim Casy, under the shade of a willow tree. Casy is unkempt and weathered, changed since they last met. He tells Joad he’s lost his faith in Jesus.
They face each other, sharing a single line of shade cast from the gnarled trunk of the willow. Casy tells Joad of his new understanding of faith; one he can’t preach. That the human spirit is the Holy Spirit. That thoughts and actions aren’t of heaven or hell, but of man, all men, connected; all the same.
I read that scene again last night. The words shared between those men; the ex con and the old preacher, the Oklahoma accents you can hear, and their simple honesty. I went to sleep with that scene. Drowsy clarity accompanied the veil of sleep and I saw that the preachers’ conflict over feelings and actions, right and wrong is eternal and everywhere. That our struggles and demons, addictions and obsessions are based on that same struggle. How we feel, what we do, and how we reconcile it all in a world where what’s expected is written in bold in the subtext of every conversation. Where the lines between right and wrong, shoulds and shouldn’ts, blur our vision whilst we struggle through the swampy grey areas on either side.
Casy threw his faith away because when he felt closest to God he wanted to make love. He couldn’t reconcile his feelings and actions with the way of Jesus. And I like him - despite his indiscretions, he’s a good man, but he’s just a man. Just like the rest.
And here I am, weighed down with my own matching luggage set of conflicting feelings. Knowing what’s expected, what’s deemed right and wrong, struggling with love, grief, hope and despair. When I woke, I was thinking about Casy and Joad again, and their words brought me quiet comfort. There is no right or wrong in a feeling, and there are no rules to loving, grieving and living on. We are all of the same, and love is what makes us tick. I wish I’d been there under that willow tree. I’d have given Casy a hug and told him he didn’t need to give up on faith because he loved women.
It’s early and the house is silent as I sit up in bed scribbling my thoughts on a notepad. Catching my reflection in the mirror, I can’t help but smile. I could be Patsy from Ab fab; hair askew and face crumpled from sleep. A glass of champers wobbling in my right hand would just about complete the look. Coffee will have to do - definitely the better option - although I don’t rule out anything in my slippery slope of self-pitying decline.
I’ve done a lot of crazy in the past few months. I speak out loud regularly to Evan, have become a compulsive DIY diva, eat more cookie dough ice cream than Fat Albert and reflect daily on my current status in recovery. I suppose creating a cameo role in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is progress from comparing oneself to the ‘most-meagrely-topped-pizza slice-in-the-box’.
Poking my head into the twins’ room to check they’re still alive, I breathe easy seeing their peaceful sleeping forms. Closing the door silently, I tiptoe to the kitchen for coffee, my reliable, available friend.
Always this light; the softness of dawn in St. Cloud lifts me. That, and a little help from my morning java and Patsy might soon be replaced by Elle McPherson. This thought is a nice one, impossible of course, but nice, and I try a sexy swagger across the living room to the deck to sit down for the remainder of the dawn lightshow.
I’m sexily swaggering when out of the corner of a still sleepy eye I see him.
Although I’ve imagined seeing him like this for months, the sight and surprise makes me dizzy. The sexy swagger stops abruptly and I spill coffee down the front of my night-shirt. My belly is burning but I don’t take my eyes from him. He hasn’t seen me, he’s out on the deck, elbows leaning on the rail, right about where I left my nail marks, staring out to sea.
I’m hyperventilating and might need a paper bag. Just the sight him - the solid square of his shoulders and slant to his waist, those arms and hands - leaning on the rail, cradling a coffee cup.
Before I can think any further, I’m out of the sliding doors and walking down the damp grass toward the fence. I watch him from behind as he watches the sun slowly rising. A bird swoops and dives from the gum tree beside his deck and he follows it with his eyes till it lands on the rail. For just a moment, I see him in profile and as he turns, his eye catches my movement.
The world stops here. Jack stops, dead still, eyes fixed on me in my coffee stained nightdress. Me, stuck to the spot, unable to walk on, unable to move, or blink, or breathe, praying that it’s not another dream, and that Jack has come back here, where he belongs.
I raise a hand about to wave then stop mid-way, realising how insignificant the action would be. My hand travels instead to my mouth where it stays, fingers resting shakily on my lips, willing myself not to cry or make a scene. I don’t know how long I’ve been standing motionless, hand to mouth, but Jack breaks the moment. He walks toward me; along the deck, down the steps and slowly toward the fence that separates our gardens. I’m walking too, but I’m not sure how, a magnetic pull that matches my stride for his. Slow and controlled. One foot at a time.
We reach the fence at the same time.
I take a breath, long and slow, trying to control my overflowing emotions. I face him, eyes locked on his. It’s that same feeling of comfort and safety since I first met him, right here, just a few feet away in this garden. But now the comfort and safety is obscured by another stronger feeling, one that was always there, a feeling that remained hidden amidst the confusion of a tangled heart.
Longing. The need to touch him and hold him. I long for him, but I take that breath and will my stronger self to the fore. I must not be needy and weak. He smiles and that weakness I’m shooing away, rushes straight for my knees and I focus to keep from wobbling.
He nods. “I am.”
“I wasn’t sure if…” I pause and try to breathe evenly. “Sorry, it’s just…”
He reaches out and runs one finger down the side of my face and I close my eyes as a fat tear slides down my blotchy cheek. He wipes it with a course thumb and if it weren’t for the fence that divides us I’d throw myself into those arms and have him hold me. I’d soak up that warmth and make it mine and I’d let him feel all the trapped longing that waits for him.
Instead, with the fence between us, I hold out my hands and he takes them and we stand there smiling gently at each other in the dawn light.
“You grew a beard.”
“You spilt your coffee.”
I’m laughing, having forgotten the wet coffee stain, the hair and the nightdress. It doesn’t matter, Jack looks at me like I am Elle McPherson. I squeeze his hands and shake my head at the hairy face, teasing him gently, telling myself to tread carefully.
Jack hops the fence and we walk warily side by side to the edge of my deck where we sit and watch the sunrise together. Our conversation is gentle, we could be strangers, but the intimacy of tone gives us away.
After a while Jack tells me a little about where he’s been. That he’s brought his brother home, that his Mom isn’t well and he’s soon to be an uncle. I tell him about Sunny and Evie, how they’ve grown. I tell him about Scotland and Cam and Nell and the farm, about my best friend Iris and her fiancé. We talk together about St Cloud, about the local news, about Zoe and Felix, Jed and Sadie, Dan and Ginny. We talk like we did before; before everything.
We try, in the way that people do, to act as if. As if it’s all okay, as if we know how to live in this new reality, as if we understand the strange and complicated relationship we circle around. As if we can cope. As if we’re getting there - to that place; that place where we really are all of those things. As though by acting as if, we might make the transition easier.
“And so Evie and Sunny have started kindergarten. God, you should see them with their little backpacks and lunchboxes.” Jack looks incredulous at this piece of news, and I can tell this mostly because he raises his eyebrows, the beard is seriously getting in my way.
“Are they still sleeping?” He glances behind us to the house.
“Yep, believe me, we’d know if they were awake. I’d say we’re probably on the countdown as we speak.” I can’t wait for him to see them and equally for them to see him. So much has changed and I cling to things that are familiar for them. They will be so happy to see Jack.
There’s another moment of silence between us. We’ve run out of all the safe topics. Jack turns to me, reaches over and places a hand over mine. “Billie…”
We haven’t spoken, not properly since the night. We never spoke of the kiss, of Evan, of who is to blame or not, of how to move on, and even now I don’t think I can.
I shake my head quickly. “It’s okay Jack.” Three useless words.
I should tell him how hard it’s been, how I blamed myself, how I hate Evan and love him at the same time, how I hated myself, and how I thought of Jack throughout it all. But I don’t. I say “It’s okay,” and nod feeling the warmth of his hand over mine, knowing that at this moment it really is okay.
The light is layered pink and orange when we hear two thumps followed by the distinct sound of little feet running heavily on wooden floors. We both jump and turn in time to see two small faces squished against the sliding doors, lips flat and noses turned up as they press against the glass. I clap my hands and jump to my feet, pulling the doors open and kneeling down to hug Evie and Sunny who peer questioningly over my shoulder at Jack.
“Look who’s here! It’s Jack! Our buddy from next door, remember?”
They hide behind me for a moment, feigning shyness. Evie pokes her head out first, her nose wrinkled, scrutinising Jack, who stands with his arms folded, staring back.
“You can’t be Evie Skylark. She’s much smaller than you.” Jack says shaking his head.
“Are you sure?”
“Mama, tell him.”
I turn around hands on hips. “This really is Evie Skylark.”
Before Jack can respond, Evie pipes up. “Jack has dogs.” Her little brow is furrowed, as she looks him up and down.
I shrug apologetically and Sunny, who is hugging my legs pokes his head around. “What’s on his face?”
“That’s a beard, honey.” Sunny looks up at me for clarification, “It’s like hair on your head, but on your face.” This sounds so funny I giggle and so do the twins. Jack’s arms are still folded and I can tell he’s smiling under all that facial hair. He rolls his eyes, sticks his thumb and first finger into his mouth and whistles loudly. In seconds Louie and Bets hurdle the fence and barrel toward us, jumping and wagging their whole bodies in happiness.
“Doggies! Doggies!” shouts Evie, clapping her hands together, while Sunny jumps up and down.
“You remember Louie and Bets?” We crouch, letting the dogs lick and paw and love us like we’ve never been away. Sunny has thrown his arms around Louie’s neck and Evie is off to find a stick for Bets.
Jack looks wounded. “What about Jack? Do I get a hug? Sunny turns to look at him again, giggles and runs off.
“You might have to lose the beard first.” Without thinking, I raise a hand to touch it. He freezes but I let my hand remain. The roughness on my palm feels good, warmth radiates from his face sparking happiness in my heart. And I could stand here all day, because I feel seeds of joy bud and bloom in my heart. Like an echo distorted over time and distance, past happiness is tinged grey with regret and grief. This innocent feeling of joy is pure and untouched, unaffected by time or tragedy.
If I stand still here in the morning sun, my hand on his face, my heart alive, I can almost forget the sad yesterdays and unknown tomorrows.
But the world doesn’t stand still, it spins and all we can do is hang on. We must hang on, must stand firm taking little steps on tired feet, because wings and flying are only for birds.
Raife stands by the kitchen window, just far back enough that he won’t be noticed if they look his way. He watches as the woman in the nightdress reaches up to touch Jack’s face.
“I’ll be damned,” he shakes his head. “I’ll be damned.”
He watches as Jack looks down at her, her hand on his face. The look exchanged between them needs no interpretation. Raife’s smile twists to a grimace as he turns away, bringing his hands to rest on his head. He breathes slowly, each controlled breath an effort that drains colour from his cheeks. Lowering his hands to rest on his temples he closes his eyes then in one quick motion, pushes his palms hard into the sockets till colours flash and sting behind his eyelids.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
When he opens his eyes they’re still there, in the garden. He turns away and starts toward Jack’s bedroom where he stands, naked from the heat, surveying the space with calculating eyes. In a few minutes he has gone through the drawers and wardrobe, filtered through Jacks meagre belongings - so little to see.
He finds a photo of her: the girl next door. She’s pregnant, in a sundress, saluting the photographer, smile wide, cheeks flushed. Underneath the photograph, folded carefully is a newspaper clipping, an obituary: Evan Skylark, husband and father… he doesn’t read on. Carefully, he re-folds the newspaper and replaces the photo.
Returning to the sofa, he finds his jeans and wanders to the kitchen for coffee. He pours and stirs, letting the coffee change gradually from black to pale brown. Milk slops on the counter and floor as the spoon clatters on the side of the mug. Coffee overflows, mixing with spilt milk and sticky sugar remnants. He is watching Jack through the window.
Jack takes the steps two at a time. He’s happy, it’s clear.
Raife nods his head slowly, glancing up as his brother enters the room. “Morning sweetheart, made you some coffee…”
Evie and Sunny are never quiet, never, unless of course they’re asleep. Even then, there are no guarantees. They chatter and laugh, cry and scrap, whinge and make broom broom noises always. It’s funny how quickly you become used to this new level of volume in the world.
Gone are the days when I’d turn the radio on for company in the evenings, when the twins were asleep and the house felt too quiet. In those days, there were no words, just crying and at night, I needed the sound of adult voices to bring back some sense of reality to my isolated world. These days, the quiet of night is like medicine. I take a shot of that peace and stillness. It’s a beautiful thing. I don’t want the radio or television, I crave that quiet space, where there is no noise and no demands.
As they figure their way around words and their meanings the air is full of chatter. I love the nonsense talk, the reasoning out and brutal honesty that comes when words precede social sensibilities. “Mommy that man has no hair.” (Sunny pointing, voice raised in the supermarket). Or, “Mommy why’s that lady got big boobies?” (Evie discussing Muriel, Dan’s receptionist, very loudly in the doctor’s waiting room).
Kids don’t need a quiet audience; they don’t care if someone is already talking, singing or shouting loudly before they join in. Two voices are better than one right? Little conversations, observations, questions, songs or just random words they like the sound of. All in synch. It’s like my own little radio frequency tuned in to babble station with no volume control.
Today we are on the way to kindergarten, a routine I’m still getting used to. My goodness, who said breast feeding was the hard part? Getting two pre-schoolers dressed, fed, toileted and out of the door by 8am takes a whole new level of organisation and discipline. By the time we three are dressed, ready and belted into the car, there’s the feeling that a great miracle has occurred. I turn the ignition and wait for a round of applause. Instead what usually happens is I realise I’ve forgotten one, maybe two crucial items and spend the next five minutes racing back in and out of the house, locking and unlocking the door. When finally, I feel secure that everything is packed and ready, Evie or Sunny, or maybe both, decide they need to go ‘wees’ again. Worse still, they might not have realised the wee in question was coming. Then we have the clean-up-and-start-again scenario which can add another fifteen minutes to our E.T.A. So, like I say, the getting to kindy by 8.15am part is really quite something to be proud of.
So far this morning has gone particularly well. We’re driving, dressed, packed and singing to the radio. No-one is crying or whingeing and its 8.10am. Five minutes to spare.
Paradise Park Kindergarten feels like a little slice of kiddie-heaven. The colours are warm and bright. Kid’s art and photo displays of smiling children hang from the walls. Egg box creations painted in primary colours, stuck with silver foil and felt shapes line display shelves. It always smells like scones and sounds like humpty dumpty. I wonder how the teachers ever have a bad day here.
What happens when you come to work with PMT? When you’re crabby and blue? You can’t be a kindergarten teacher on a day like that. You just can’t - it goes against the laws of teaching pre-schoolers. Kindy teachers must always be smiling, wear bright colours, be good at giving hugs and wear silly earrings.
Evie and Sunny were welcomed into Paradise Park Kindergarten like they were family. The experience of arriving there and being welcomed so warmly was so unexpectedly beautiful, I had to be led to the teachers’ room and given a box of hankies and a maternal cuddle myself. All that kindness and love, all those little people starting out, full of life and joy and hope. (Okay, there were a few tantrums and squabbles and wails for mommies to come back, but for the most part it was a beautiful thing.)
The twins arrived at Paradise Park like they’d been there every day of their short lives. They breezed right on in and went straight to the craft tables and new toys, climbing bars and new friends. That’s when the tears started, you see I’d expected the clinging to Mom’s leg, crying not to be left, me feeling terribly needed and having to be shooed out by the kindly teachers, who’d tell me ‘they’ll be fine when you’re gone’.
Except it wasn’t like that at all. They were off with barely a backward glance, even Sunny, my little softie. Gone.
Of course I was proud. “Gosh haven’t you done a good job.” said Miss Mandy, the fifty-something portly teacher with a kind smile and dangly cowbell earrings. “Wonderful to see little ones so confident and ready to get involved.”
I kept smiling proudly, only aware I’d started to sniffle when Miss Mandy led me kindly by the elbow to the teacher’s room. You see, all I could think was that my poor babies were relieved to finally have a break from Mommy. I wondered how much I’d carried my grief for them to see, wondered how much they’d felt it too. Maybe kindergarten felt like a place they could start again, where they didn’t have to hold my sadness.
I’d blurted this all out to Miss Mandy. She held my hand then made me a cup of tea and nodded reassuringly, telling me again how well I’d done. Of course she doesn’t know how well, or not well I’ve done at all, but the kindness was humbling. I stayed there in the teacher’s room for a while, watching Evie and Sunny from a distance, playing with their new best friends, climbing and running and exploring, not looking for me. And when I felt ready, I slipped away, knowing they were happy and that I was doing everything the best way I could.
I had taken to going to the library after kindergarten drop off. The quiet calm and musty smell of books felt like exactly what I needed. I thought of London and Paris and the libraries there that inspired me, back in my other life. I thought of my book, the only one I’d finished and the joy I’d found when writing. So I started again: notes at first, ideas and plans, quotes and scenes. I started writing and it felt so good I cried again, my tear ducts barely holding up.
Like saying ‘hello’ to an old friend, the simple act of beginning a story that wasn’t mine felt like freedom. My writing since Evans death has been self-absorbed, focused on thoughts and feelings, exploring my grief and recovery. This was a step forward - a right royal leap. I was writing outside of self-pity, beginning the makings of someone else’s story.
Today I spend an hour in the library, a good hour planning and writing, then head to Beaujangles to meet Zoe and Virginia. It’s a ten-minute stroll and I walk slowly, savouring the perfumed smell in the air. It rained heavily last night and as the warmth of the sun dries the pavements and palms a sultry smell that is specific to St. Cloud lingers.
The main street leading to Beaujangles is lined with palms interspersed with benches on the sidewalks. Town is busy but never crowded, and I can see the outside tables and chairs of Beaujangles spilling on to the pavement near the end of the street. The hum of chatter and the soft low beat of reggae drifts towards me as I approach.
“Billie girl, there you are! My morning is complete.” Jed is behind Monica, smiling as he multitasks, frothing milk with one hand, setting down cups with the other.
Sadie drifts around the corner from the kitchen carrying an order of eggs and toast. “Hey Billie, the girls already ordered for you.”
“Thanks.” I smile and weave through the busy tables to a booth in the corner where Virginia and Zoe sit. The table groans with cups and plates. “Did I miss the crowd?” I gesture toward the stack of pancakes, milkshake, round of buttered toast, croissant and savoury muffin.
Zoe dabs her mouth with a napkin. “It’s all for me sister, can’t stop! I’m growing as we speak.” She pats her large bump lovingly. “I know you must be wondering how I can fit anything else in here. It’s amazing. I keep waiting to pop but so far I’m just hungry.” She pauses for effect. “All the time.” She bites into a slice of toast and smiles up at me. “Sit down, I might even share.”
“Holy cow, you’ve grown since last week.” I touch her tummy. It is as hard as a bowling ball.
“I know, she’s unstoppable. I keep thinking maybe I should go easy on the food. I mean how big will she be by pushing time? But then, I start thinking about macaroni cheese and it’s all over.”
Virginia laughs. “You’ll be fine. It’s number three. You’ll sneeze and that baby will be out.”
“Don’t say that!” Zoe looks horrified.
“I’m kidding, but seriously…” Virginia sips her coffee delicately. “It’s almost always the way with the third baby - two pushes and they’re out. Easy labour, quick recovery. It’s Mother Nature’s way. She knows you’ve got be back on the front line quickly.”
Zoe frowns. “It’s true. I’ll be back making the macaroni cheese myself the next day.” She gives her head a small shake then turns to me. “You look great Billie, what’s different?”
I’m not sure this is a compliment. “Washed my hair?”
“That’ll do it, good girl, about time.” I elbow her and she laughs. “I’m kidding, you do look good though, and it’s more than the hair.”
“I’m writing. Not much really, but a start, I need to get going again.”
“That’s great Billie.” Virginia is overly enthusiastic. She’s about to carry on but Zoe interrupts.
“Holy crap, who is that?”
We all look around to the front of the café, and our triple head swivel is so obvious the man in question looks straight at us. He’s over six feet tall with sandy blonde hair and chiselled cheekbones. For a second, I see Jack but realise quickly it can’t possibly be, this is a blonde, less hairy, finer version. It must be.
Virginia and Zoe turn open mouthed to stare at me. He’s at the counter now, shaking hands with Jed, and I know I must be right.
“Jack’s brother?” Zoe looks puzzled. “Hang on, back up, but Jack’s not here, is he?
“Why didn’t we know he had a brother?” says Virginia, eyes still on the man at the counter, tongue practically lolling.
“Virginia.” Zoe nudges her. “Pull yourself together.”
“Jack is home. I saw him yesterday.”
“Oh?” Zoe still looks puzzled; she hates not to be first on the scoop. I can tell she’s unsure how to follow with her next question. “Did you speak to him?”
“Oh. And the brother, what’s the story?” Virginia and Zoe’s eyes are trained on me but I’m studying the brother, who can’t see me staring from here.
“I don’t really know. He’s been away in the States for a while and decided to come back, I guess.” I know there’s more to the story. Jack hinted their relationship was difficult but it’s not my story to tell.
“Funny, we haven’t heard about this brother before.” Virginia’s gaze is back at the counter where Jed and Jack’s brother are still in conversation.
Zoe wrinkles her nose, and returns to her muffin. “Actually, now that I come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I remember something about Jack having a couple of brothers. All used to live here, parents moved away a while ago, not sure about the rest.”
Virginia sucks in her breath, sitting up straight. “Okay, I’m calling him over.”
Jack’s brother turns when beckoned by Virginia and smiles a smile which manages to look both shy and quietly confident at the same time. He walks toward our table carrying a large cup of coffee.
“Ladies.” He towers over our food covered table, eyes lingering on each of us in turn.
Virginia leans forward, hand extended toward him, cheeks flushed. “You must be Jack’s brother.”
“Actually, Jack’s my brother.” He extends the smile further and offers his hand. “I’m Raife.”
Virginia is holding his hand, and the rose in her cheeks deepens by the second, “Nice to meet you Raife. We’re Jack’s friends. I’m Virginia, you can call me Ginny.” Zoe kicks me under the table and I yelp. His eyes turn and fix on me. “And that’s Billie and this is Zoe.”
Raife reaches out to shake our hands one by one, holding on just a little longer than necessary, maintaining eye contact for an excruciatingly long time. Virginia has turned to putty, and is blabbing on, asking questions. Raife manages to answer without giving too much away.
I study his face as he talks, so very like Jack yet so different, and I wonder what it was that came between them. What could be so bad that you wouldn’t see or speak to family for years? Life is too short.
I think of Cam and how very far away he is, and feel an ache in my chest. I take a fortifying gulp of coffee and turn to Zoe who continues her eating marathon, oblivious to Ginny, Raife, and to me. She spreads a thick layer of butter on some toast.
“So you’re Billie.”
I nod, “We live next door to Jack. It’s really nice to meet you.”
I’m not sure why I feel unsure of him. Maybe it’s the ‘I’m-too-sexy-for-my pants’ look, or just knowing there’s been difficulties between him and Jack in the past. But every family has its share of drama, and I shouldn’t judge. Besides, he’s quite nice to look at.
Virginia’s not the only one swooning. As I glance around Beaujangles there’s a trail of wide eyed, open mouthed, ladyfolk in his wake. He’s straight from a Calvin Klein add, drop-dead gorgeous but without the designer clothes.
“Jack told me about you.”
I wonder what Jack might have told him. “But we haven’t met yet right?” I worry I’ve had a momentary memory lapse, but realise that of course I would remember meeting him. He’s quite unforgettable.
“I saw you in the garden.”
He staring and it’s a little uncomfortable. Zoe kicks me again under the table and I’m tempted to kick her right back but she stands up and starts waving madly across the café. Dan has just walked in the door.
We follow Zoe’s wave, all eyes turned to the door where Dan breezes in, slick and suntanned. The google-eyed pathway of women Raife only just swept through, turn now to the vision of male perfection that is Dan. The effect is almost exactly the same. Where with Raife, the reactions were open mouthed and wide-eyed; who was this gorgeous stranger? With Dan the look is all open admiration. They all know who Dan is; they just wish he was straight.
“Dan, over here! Got time for a cuppa with us?” Zoe’s is a fog horn. She stands to greet Dan and as she turns her bump is pushed into the side of my face. “You okay down there?” Giggling, she eases herself back in to a sitting position. “That was hard work. Pass me my milkshake.”
Dan is heading our way, smiling and signalling to Jed as he weaves his way through the crowded café. My newly resurrected novelist’s head must be playing games with me. First my suspicious uneasiness around Raife, and now, as I watch Dan approach and see Raife, I notice an odd change in Dan’s expression. An emotion visible for a brief moment before his face forms a smile. But it’s the same smile he uses in the doctors waiting room, for greeting patients he’s never met before, or ones he already knows and maybe wishes he didn’t. It’s a shiny, wide smile, but it doesn’t reach his eyes.
Raife sits on my left and I can tell that his attention is now fully on Dan. He seems to have a way with that - ‘Hi, I’m Raife, I’m looking in your eyes and you’re the only person in the room’, thing. But as Dan approaches he doesn’t do the ‘Hi I’m Raife’ line, he breathes out slowly and rises to meet Dan. There’s an unspoken history. I see it in Dan too.
Before he says a word, Dan nods at Raife, acting as though the arrival of this new and dazzling secret brother of Jack’s was a prior arrangement.
“Raife.” Dan doesn’t hold out his hand to shake or hug, his hands push deeply into his trouser pockets and he nods. It’s a little awkward and an embarrassed silence slips over the table.
“Good to see you Dan.” Raife thrusts his hand out anyway, palm open, ready to do the manly handshake.
I feel an anxious creep of uncertainty flow over the table as we watch. What’s up with Dan? Here follows a long, excruciating moment where we’re all sure he’s not going to shake Raife’s hand.
I’m just about to jump up myself, grab Raife’s extended hand and on behalf of Dan say; ‘Good to see you too! You two obviously know each other, but in your absence Raife, Dan has acquired a hearing impediment. You might think he’s being rude but actually he can’t hear you.’
Virginia clears her throat unsubtly. Zoe chews her bottom lip.
“Been a long time Raife.” Dan finally extends his arm and there’s a collective sigh of relief around the table. The sigh is quickly preceded by lively chatter as we all begin to talk at the same time, trying to cover the social awkwardness.
Sadie arrives with Dan’s coffee and sandwich and Virginia introduces her to Raife. Again, the full attention and long eye contact. Sadie looks unphased; nothing seems to rock her boat. She clears the table, squeezing Dan’s shoulder affectionately before leaving laden with debris from Zoe’s food fest.
Sitting at the opposite side of the booth, Dan isn’t forced into further conversation with Raife. He bears down on his sandwich, eating like someone might steal it if he stops for breath.
“So Raife, are you planning on staying in St. Cloud for a while?” I ask politely.
Raife shrugs, and sips his mug of coffee, eyeing me carefully. “I might, I haven’t decided.”
“What do you do?”
As soon as I ask, I realise the question is horrible. It’s one of those ‘open ended, interpret how you want, make you feel awkward if currently you don’t do much’ sort-of-a-question.
He smiles wryly. “I do a lot of things, which one do you want to know about?”
I’m blushing. “Were you working in Los Angeles?”
Raife sets his coffee cup down and stretches his arms out in front of him, lacing his fingers together and extending his palms. “I’m a musician.”
Zoe perks up beside me. “What sort? Are you in a band?”
“Not any more. I play gigs, mostly solo.”
“So you sing?” I ask surprised. I’m not sure why this seems so unlikely.
He smiles, “I do.”
“Were you playing in LA?” Zoe is suddenly awestruck, appetite satiated she looks properly at Raife. “Wow, like, paid gigs? Would we have heard of you?”
Raife smiles. “I doubt it. Not here in the boonies.”
Dan looks up. “Yeah Raife, why would you ever come back to the boonies? Can’t be much for you here, not after living in LA.”
Raife shrugs again. “This is where I grew up remember?” Dan raises his eyebrows a little, and again there’s that tension. “I might hang around a while, catch up with some old friends, take it from there.”
He stands to leave, glancing around, smiling at us all before tipping an imaginary cowboy hat. “It’s going to be nice, getting to know you all.” He turns to Dan. “It’s real good to see you again.”
Dan shrugs, looking like he’s privy to an entirely different commentary on the scene than the rest of us. Raife leaves, waving to Jed on the way out, the ripple of appraising female eyes following his slow stroll.
It’s a fabulous record player.
If only he had a bigger collection of records to play. It’s either Maria Callas or Nat King Cole. Maria’s too emotional for tonight and Nat makes him feel like he should be wrapping Christmas presents.
Dan pulls off his glasses and rubs his eyes, the glare of the computer screen illuminates the dark red wine that waits untouched in a large glass beside the keyboard. Pushing the chair back from his seat at the table, he strolls barefoot across the cool tile floor to the old ‘Dansette’. The turntable clicks as the record spins and slows to a halt, the arm returning smoothly back to its resting point.
He was given the player by a patient, an elderly lady he’d visited at home until her death. She’d known he’d loved her old retro player, a blue and cream striped wooden box on four legs. She’d left it to him in her Will along with a few records, and the scratchy sounds of those smooth melodies are part of his downtime routine. Late at night, when the day’s tasks are done, he clips open the box lid, stacks a few records and lowers the needle carefully on to the spinning ebony discs. Those grooves create a magical sound you just can’t recreate with anything else. It sounds like the past.
He would have fitted in so well there, back in that era. He’d drive a shiny new red Chevy with white leather seats and wear a cardigan with his name on the back. The past is so easy to think about, reference to and enjoy. It’s the future that causes all the problems.
He doesn’t want to listen anymore. He’s restless and edgy. Returning to the computer he settles back into his seat and stares at the screen, reading and re-reading the text.
’…incurable genetic disease…clogging of lungs…suppressed immune function…’
Dan reaches for the wine glass without taking his eyes from the words. He takes a long slow sip, skimming over the paragraph he’s read too many times.
’…damaged lungs, scarred from infection cannot effectively supply sufficient oxygen to the body making the sufferer susceptible to suffocation.’
Setting the wine glass down he closes his eyes, nodding slowly in thought. When he opens them his expression is focused. He clicks on the email icon and begins to type. Message composed he presses ‘send’. The message on its way to his friend; Dr Jan Roitner, Head of Clinical Research at the James Lewis Cystic Fibrosis Centre in Baltimore.
Dan knows the prognosis, understands the facts, but before he talks to Sadie he wants to be sure he’s aware of any new research which might give her future hope; hope that the current statistics clearly don’t. The whole thing has thrown him off kilter.
Pushing back the chair, he raises his bare feet and crosses them on the corner of the table. Lifting the glass, he swirls the wine around, watching as it clings to the inside of the glass leaving a thin film of translucent red. Another sip, the taste full, the slow hum of alcohol seeps gracefully into his bloodstream flowing smoothly to his brain. The world slows down and so does he.
There are days when the usual philosophies and mantras just don’t cut it. Even with the Dansette playing, the wine and the night; spectacular with smell and sound - there remains an edge he can’t smooth. Dan likes things in their place: people, emotions and possessions. He likes the comfort of clean lines and smooth edges.
Right now, things don’t fit. Something in the fabric of life all around is unsettled, and he’s unsure how to fix it.
But hey, it’s been a long day. He’s feeling drowsy after his 5 am yoga start. Wine glass in hand, feet crossed on the table, Dan’s head lolls forward as his eyes droop. He wakes only when the red wine soaks through his shirt and the glass smashes on the ground. The accompanying shock sends him tumbling from the chair on to all fours on the floor.
A loud knock at the door startles him from his incredulous position on the floor. It’s like a scene from ‘Freddy’s Revenge’: Dan’s white shirt is red with wine and his palms and knees bleed from the broken wine glass he un-ceremonially landed on.
“What the fuck?” Another knock. “Hold up! I’m just bleeding out in here. Let me seal up a few arteries and I’ll be right with you.”
“Dan, its Jack. You okay in there?”
Dan hobbles to the door.
“Jesus, what happened here?” Jack is wide-eyed.
Dan’s pretty wide-eyed himself, from drowsy slumber to awake on the floor; drenched in wine and shredded by his own glass.
“Oh, this?” He glances down at himself. “Just a suicide pact with the cat gone wrong.”
“Good to see you - I think.”
“Well come in quick before I lose any more blood. My floors will never recover.” He looks down. “Goddamn, look at my shirt. This is Armani. The wine will never come out.”
Dan limps back through the house, heading for the bathroom. Jack follows. “Was it a party for one?”
“Something like that.”
Jack looks around at the glass and wine on the floor and heads to the kitchen for cleaning supplies. “I’ve only been away for a few months. I didn’t expect to find you in such a state.” He bends to brush up the glass.
“Well, you never called, what’s a guy to do? Jesus… that hurt.” Dan’s voice is raised from the bathroom.
“Okay in there?”
“Just removing a few glass shards.”
Minutes later Dan hobbles through, wearing some loose trousers and a clean shirt, a few sterile strips on his hands. Jack has mopped up the wine and is looking in the fridge for beer.
“Heard you were back today. Wondered when I’d get to witness the hairy face myself.”
Jack grins. “News travels fast.”
“You bet. Billie sent me a text this morning - three words: Jack’s gotta beard!”
“Big news then.”
“Big news…for Billie.” Dan watches him carefully.
Jack turns away, his eyes skimming over the slick appliances and stainless steel surfaces in Dan’s kitchen. “How’ve you been?”
“My God, finally someone asks about Dr Dan! I’m thrilled you’re here. I knew someone would care. How long do you have?”
Jack turns back to face him, eyes narrowed in concern.
“Relax, I’m kidding. Same old, same old here. Every day’s another day in paradise, right?”
“Right.” Jacks smiles gently. “Severing that artery has made you cynical.”
“Yeah well, I’ve been a doctor around this place for a long time. A guy can know too much.” He pauses, turning to look out the window at the settling darkness. “Sometimes I think I’d like to start again, a new place where I didn’t know anyone or their business. I wouldn’t know who’s got boils and bunions, who’s divorcing who, having a breakdown, or on Prozac.”
He turns back, lifting an injured hand to the light, examining it for further glass remnants. “Just for today I’d like not to know. Then I’d be able to imagine that everyone’s life was ‘happy, fucking, joy, joy’.” He shakes his head slowly, sighing wearily. “That’s the trouble Jack. It never is.”
Dan looks up and shrugs. “I’m just tired. Some days there’s more bad news than good, and usually I’m the guy who has to deliver it.”
Jack nods slowly. “I wish I could help you man, but I agree. Feels like nothing’s been easy for a long time.” He sinks heavily into a chair. Dan follows and they sip their beer in silence for a moment before Jack continues. “Amandine’s not herself, I’m not sure what to do.”
“What wrong with her?”
“She’s getting confused, forgetting things, then gets real upset.”
“How long has she been like this?”
“I’m not sure. Saul won’t talk much about it. Jess said it’s been a while and it’s getting worse.” Jack leans forward, elbows resting on his knees. “She can’t remember things, gets all mixed up. Sometimes she starts talking like its twenty years ago, then starts crying about her Mama’s death like it just happened.”
There’s a long pause as the information settles. Dan nods slowly. When Jack looks up his expression is expectant. The look of hope crushes the word waiting on Dan’s lips: Dementia. He won’t say it out loud, Jack already knows. But still, his eyes are fixed on Dan as though he might have the magic answer and will prescribe a nice tonic to bring her back to herself.
“Has she been to a doctor yet?”
“Joseph won’t take her and won’t let anyone else. Denies there’s anything wrong. Whenever anyone tries to talk to him about it, he says she’s tired. Even said me being around is the problem, brings all that sadness back.”
“He’s an old bastard.”
Jack nods ruefully. “What can I do?”
“Do Jess and Saul keep a close eye on her?”
“They’re there every day.”
Dan surveys his friend closely taking a moment before answering. “I guess for now they need to be watching her closely, make sure she’s not getting worse or endangering herself. Get the old bastard drunk and get her to a doctor. She’s going to need some help if she deteriorates.”
Jack sits up and rubs a hand over his beard, his eyes troubled. “So, there’s not much chance it’s something that will get better.”
Dan shakes his head slowly, heart heavy. “I’m sorry Jack but I don’t think that’s likely. I could be wrong. But from what you’re saying, I think it’s more likely she’ll get worse.”
“God damn!” Jack makes a fist, nursing it in his palm. “God damn.” Quieter this time, tone resigned, fingers running over the knuckles of his balled fist.
“I’m sorry man.”
Jack gathers himself, shaking his head, waving a hand briefly in protest. “I asked you.”
“Want me to talk to Saul?”
“No.” He shakes his head decisively. “No, its fine.”
Silence rests in the room as the hard facts of a new reality build another wall that must be scaled. Jack’s eyes are on the window, lost in darkness and pinpricks of hopeful starlight. Dan examines his hands, deft fingers and smooth skin; healing hands. The thought brings frustration to the contemplative quiet - healing hands - what a fucking joke.
Jack turns from the window and smiles wryly at Dan’s expression. “Well, you’ll be feeling better now that I dropped by to cheer you up. All that cynical ‘life’s a bitch’ talk, you’ll be glad I came to join the party.”
Dan is glad for the return of humour. “How did I get by while you were gone? My own little ray of sunshine.” He folds his arms sighing heavily. “Oh, and by the way, welcome home.”
Jack grins, sips the last of his beer, and pushes his chair back to stand. “Well, it’s been a real fun time but this ray of sunshine’s got to go.”
“Hey, I’m kidding…sort of, stay a while. I’m on an unlucky roll, if you go that wine glass might come back for me.”
“Can’t, just swung in on the way past. I’ve got to pick up Raife. He’s at Santos, trying to sweet-talk Bastian into a gig.”
Dan keeps nodding. “And you guys are okay?”
Jack shrugs noncommittally. “I’m going to help him get on his feet.”
“Think I’ve heard that before.”
“Yeah well, this is the last time.”
“Heard that before too.”
“Give me a break Dan. What else am I supposed to do?”
“Let him sort his own shit out for once. You don’t owe him anything.”
Jack’s stands behind the chair, knuckles paling as his grip tightens. “Trouble with that Dan, is I do.”
He walks to the door and when he turns back to Dan, his smile has returned. “Catch you tomorrow. Take care of those war wounds. It’s good to see you.”
“Yeah, yeah. Good to see you too.” Dan’s voice follows Jack through the door. “You and all that joy…you’re killing me.” He sighs, watching Jack hop into his truck and reverse out of the drive. “And get rid of that beard!” He shouts from the window pointing to his own chin.
Jack waves, beeps the horn and disappears around the corner.
Its midnight when Dan wakes with a start on the sofa, dry mouthed, hands and knees throbbing. The room is black aside from the flicker of his laptop screen saver in the far corner. God, why did he finish that bottle of red?
He’d felt belligerent, sitting on his own, pouring the third glass, telling himself he needed a few drinks, just to relax. It’s a funny thing having no-one to observe your actions, no-one to question your intentions or justify your behaviour to. Liberating yet lonely.
He loves living alone. He’s tried twice to live with partners, but both attempts at domesticity were a disaster. He’d hated having someone in his precious space, and both good relationships quickly turned sour. Living alone, Dan can keep to his routine, can micro manage the aspects of his life that give him peace. Yet tonight, he feels different. Dan feels the quiet, the lack of empathy from his sparse furnishings and designer kitchen appliances.
He wants someone to talk to, someone to listen, someone that gets him. Because this feeling is a new one, this sourness with life and his place in it, it’s strange and unwelcome. He’s never questioned his profession or his vocation. It’s what he was born to do, it’s what he’s good at. He’s familiar with tragedy, illness, disease and depression. So why now, does he feel shaken by the futility of it all, and his inability to make a difference?
Reaching above he flips on a lamp, drinks some water and heads to his laptop where the email icon celebrates the arrival of 7 new items in his inbox.
Roitner has replied already: a short business-like note, updating Dan on his latest projects and the health of his wife and children. Attached are two recently produced papers on cystic fibrosis, describing trialling of new treatments and drugs, new statistics and information on progress with existing studies.
Dan taps the paperclip icon and the first 37-page document opens readily. His eyes reflect the white, blue glare of the screen in the semi-dark room, blinking and refocusing from sleep to study.
Scrolling down, he reads carefully. Gradually the quiet despair is replaced, page by page with calm resolve. He is a professional, a scientist, grounded by research and medicine. An internal tug of war is underway as Dan tucks away the personal. Fact by precious medical fact, illness and cures, patients and ailments become separate, unrelated to anyone he knows or loves. Disease: a collection of diagnosed problems to be researched and treated appropriately.
His head begins to pulse with the beginnings of a hangover and he winces, removing his attention from the bright screen to rub his temples gently. Medicine has never felt so claustrophobically close. Never in all his years of studying, never in his time in practice has it seemed so closely aligned with his own emotions. Tonight Dan’s resilience is depleted, but he knows in the morning things will be different. With this thought, he carefully closes the laptop and hobbles down the hall to bed.
Tomorrow is always the best place to start.