Mia wakes to the buzzing of her phone, the glow of the screen lighting up the bedroom. The message is just three words: missing u darling. The phone says the caller is unknown. Mia turns the phone off, right off. It’s 4 am. It’s always the same, a message on the day of the murder and then nothing. One day there will be something, or someone more likely, and she’ll wish she’d taken that gun out of its hiding place.
Through a slit in the curtains she watches her frangipani sway in the breeze, clusters of flowers glowing like pearls. If only she could be like that, just a tree in a garden somewhere, doing her thing and when her time has come, dying.
The eighteenth anniversary of Janie’s death has arrived with uncanny symmetry: the fifteenth of November, sticky heat, stillness, a thin stream of cool flowing from the air conditioner—and even the frangipani blooming just as it was when Mia rode her bike from this house to Janie’s.
Throwing off her sheet, she pulls on a nightie and walks towards the kitchen, stopping at the door. Something is out there; its shadow moves on the wall. About to go for her weapon, she hesitates and laughs. It’s just a moth, a big one, crawling on the outside of the kitchen window, light from the street throwing its shadow across the room.
She pours herself a glass of water. About to drink it all in one go, she puts it down instead and stands watching the water wobble. This is Janie’s day and Janie loved anticipation-moments, whether it was looking forward to a glass of water, a piece of cake or—as she had once blurted out—sex. Mia smiles. It was so Janie to put all three together, the beautifully broken Janie that is, the one they all wanted a piece of.
Mia turns towards the dark outline of a portrait of Janie on the wall behind her, raises the glass, says a prayer of thanksgiving for Janie and swallows a mouthful. Putting the glass down, she moves her gaze to a large family photo on the same wall and looks into the joyous eyes of her Eskimo grandmother, Bushka, who holds a bundle of newborn great-granddaughter in her arms.
The occasion had been a bravery award for Mia’s commando husband, Red. Bushka had laughed and said that it should have been given to Mia for the fourteen-hour labour that had brought little Oksana into the world. Bushka had gone on to say that Mia would have made a good Eskimo wife, except for her rare eye colour—amber—which was the same as Bushka’s and meant the blood of a god flowed in her veins and she ought to be worshipped. Mia smiles. She misses Bushka’s earthy humour. It’s hard to believe the photo is already eight years old, Bushka is gone and Oksy is now a dancing, singing version of what Bushka once was.
Approaching headlights flood the street outside, illuminating the kitchen. Mia steps into the shadows. A car cruises past.
A scream shatters the silence, an Oksy scream. Mia runs down the hallway and bursts into Oksy’s bedroom. Sobs come from beneath a rumpled doona, the outline of Oksy’s quivering body just visible in the glow of a night-light. Crawling underneath the covers, Mia puts her arms around her. The sobs go down to deep, slow breaths.
Oksy tells of a nightmare about a man called ‘Dog’ who lives down the road at a place called ‘Long Bay.’ ‘Dog wants to kill Mummy,’ she tells her. Mia’s heart sinks. For all of Oksy’s short life the subject of ‘Dog’ has mostly stayed out of conversation at home—but not out of gossip at school.
‘Long Bay is a Sydney jail darling,’ Mia says. ‘He was put in there years ago.’
‘But Mummy, why does he want to kill you?’
‘Let’s talk about it later honey.’
‘Please, Mummy. I’ll have more bad dreams if you don’t.’
‘It’s a long story,’ Mia says, looking into Oksy’s shining eyes.
This is so unnecessary.
‘Alright,’ Mia says. ‘But promise you won’t talk about it at school.’
‘I shot him,’ Mia says, regretting it immediately.
Oksy turns away and they both lie there without saying a word, Mia looking one way and Oksy looking the other. The fact that the name ‘Dog’ was just spoken in this lovely little bedroom is bad enough. Now it’s like it all happened yesterday.
‘Why?’ Oksy asks in a small voice.
‘He had a gun, darling—he killed my friend Janie.’
‘Janie on the wall, who was married to Paddy?’
There’s a knock on the door. The nanny, Jemma, stands there in her pyjamas wanting to know if everything’s all right. Mia assures her it is. Jemma walks away.
‘Mummy,’ Oksy says, ‘why did this Dog man kill Janie?’
‘The police said he was paid to.’
‘We don’t know darling.’
Mia shudders. There are theories about why.
‘Why isn’t Daddy home yet?’
‘I don’t know,’ Mia says, putting an arm around her.
There’s no way Mia will be telling her daughter that Daddy has been sent off to do some killing. He has. But he always tells Oksy that he’s an army peacekeeper. Sorry Mia, Red’s text had explained, another combat zone.
That word ‘combat’ is a pet hate of Mia’s. And now that she thinks about it, ‘sorry’ is too. What about the ‘combat zone’ of their marriage? She married a gorgeous man who’s got another woman: A jealous bitch called the army, he says and laughs.
‘I’m scared, Mummy,’ Oksy says. ‘Can I get into your bed?’
Mia takes her hand and they walk back to her bedroom. Oksy climbs into the bed with Mia and is asleep in minutes. First light steals through the curtains, reflecting off Oksy’s forehead. Mia strokes her daughter’s face and blows a kiss to the Bushka she remembers and all the pretty cakes, smiles and prayers she had showered on Oksy, just as she had on Mia—all the way through to her crazy private-school years.
If only Bushka could see Oksy now, red tresses spread out on the pillow as if in a gale and those lovely piano player’s hands—which her teacher says she inherited off Mia, except that Mia doesn’t play the piano.
Another car drives past outside, slow, like it’s looking for something, trying to dredge up the past. Mia slides deeper under her sheet. The gun is just below the bed; she could get it out easily enough if she needs to. If only she’d blown that cave man’s head right off.
She should be charged with attempted murder! Dog’s defence barrister had said. She’s a fourteen-year-old girl acting in self-defence, the prosecution had said. This is irreversible damage, a doctor had said, pointing to scarring on Dog’s neck. The accused was under the influence of ice, a psychologist had said. Listen to me Mister Shrink! Ludya had shouted, standing up. This man is no kid messing around with drugs—he’s more than twice the age of my daughter—he’s made a career out of murder! Mia was so proud of her mother. The whole room was in awe.
Just when it had seemed all over, when the judge had announced that Dog would get nineteen years non-parole, the killer had looked at Mia and screamed in his squeaky voice, Dog’s gunna have Mia one day! The threat went viral and Mia became an instant internet celebrity.
Mia’s phone says 4:27 am but there’s no way she will be getting any more sleep. Picking up a remote from her bedside table, she activates a spa in her ensuite, curls up next to Oksy and thinks about another thing she’s looking forward to. Stashed in amongst the shampoo bottles above the spa is her favourite George MacDonald novel Lilith.
Mia lies there, listening to the steady breathing of her daughter and watching the frangipani. She tries to pray. She dozes off and wakes to the beeping of her remote telling her that the spa is ready.
Walking in to a room full of steam, she turns the lights on and checks the water temperature with her toe. It’s perfect! She steps in, closes her eyes and lies back until her face is just above the surface, water jets pummelling her back.
She lets out a long sigh and surrenders every part of her body, one bit at a time, to the slow cooking: first the toes, then the ankles and knees; hips, belly and shoulders; neck, jaw, mouth and finally the eyes until there’s not a bit of tense sinew anywhere.
For Mia, today—being a Sunday—would normally have nothing more complicated than early mass at 8:30 am. But she’ll be lucky to make it to late mass. First up will be an awkward meeting with her personal assistant, Suzy, at Green Avenue Women’s Refuge in Darlinghurst, which Mia manages.
The next appointment is the reason why Mia will be lucky to make it to late mass: a conversation on a luxury yacht with the philanthropist Tate Wolsey, whose reputation is damaging Mia’s, especially at her church where he used to be a regular.
If all goes well, though, Mia will be back just in time to take Oksy and Jemma to late mass. After that, there will be tea and cakes at the back of the church with her favourite old ladies who will want all the latest gossip on Tate.
He’s Catholic, she will reassure them. And when they laugh at that she’ll tell them God’s happy to play dice with anyone who wants to help. And they will remind her that Tate is the man whose security company drove trucks over mothers and children in the streets of Kandahar. And she will tell them that if God can use the Catholic Church he can use anyone. Who cares where we get the money? she will say to them. The ritual over, they will adore her, call her their ‘Joan of Arc’ and donate money, blankets and soup to the refuge.
Mia floats up into a sitting position, allowing the spa jets to massage her lower back. A short red skirt hanging on the bathroom door beckons. Her face flushes with embarrassment. That skirt is a little shorter than what she would normally wear, but its cut suits her shape and goes with her heels and new hairstyle: a chocolate-brown undercut she had done before attending a fundraising dinner last week.
The event was a great success, and during the formalities there was a nice surprise when Tate handed her a cheque. Unfortunately, a photographer caught the moment and splashed it on a front page, turning her into that sexy social worker everyone’s talking about. Where’s she been all this time? the readers had wanted to know. She’s a tool, a commentator had said.
Her management team at the refuge saw it and groaned. Her mother saw it and told her she’s flirting for God. Red said nothing. He’d already told her: Tate’s a fuckwit; he’s in love with you.
It’s time for that novel. Drying her hands, Mia takes the book out from amongst a jumble of bottles and razors. Just as she’s about to start reading, she’s interrupted by a soft knock on the door.
‘Come in, lovely,’ she says.
The door opens and a green-eyed Oksy stands there in a nightie of hot-pink lace, playing with her hair. She has her father’s curls and freckles, but according to Mia’s mother, that pixie nose and the hockey-stick eyebrows are like Mia’s at that age.
‘Can I get in, Mummy?’ she asks.
‘Of course you can, sweetheart,’ Mia answers, putting the book away.
Dropping her nightie to the floor, Oksy lifts one leg over the edge of the bath, then the other, and slides in with a splash. The water sways: Oksy duck-dives, showing a rosy bottom and a pair of feet. She bobs back up again, giggling and squirting water out through toothless gums.
Mia throws a sponge at her. Oksy throws it back and hits her in the eye. Mia reaches out blindly and tries—not too hard—to catch her. Oksy lunges and Mia follows, the pair of them caught up in a game of chasings until the daughter climbs on top of the mother and it all ends with the daughter riding piggyback and Mia collapsing underneath her.
Finally, the spa’s heat has its way and Oksy’s playfulness turns tranquil. Mia picks up the book again and Oksy hops out, towelling herself down.
One sentence in particular catches Mia’s attention: Even if you lie there a thousand years you will not sleep until you have opened your hand and yielded that which was never yours to keep or to give. Mia wonders if today might be a good day for letting something go—like that front-page skirt or Green Avenue.
Not Green Avenue.
Mia steps out of the spa and looks at a postcard-sized portrait of Red, which she stuck on the tiles the day after his latest ‘Sorry Mia’ text. His wad of red, curly hair, once-broken nose and thick neck could mark him out as nothing more than a meathead, but—as a girlfriend of hers once said—all is forgotten when you come to those wide-set, deep green eyes. Laughter and even joy are there.
Rubbing herself down, she walks into the bedroom and finds black jeans, a sports bra and T-shirt. Standing at the mirror, she applies a non-intrusive mauve lipstick and she’s done. Forget the nails; forget that pale as a ghost face and no need to worry about those naturally arched eyebrows, which everyone seems to love. Dressing down like this is sure to get a comment from Tate, but boring might be a fun change after all the hype.
Searching for her joggers under the bed, she notices a pair of Red’s black pyjama shorts, a rip in their elastic bringing a smile to her face. It was such a comical situation. A year ago he had come home on sick leave with a back strain, and there she was, hungry for sex! In her enthusiasm, the pants were torn and he had laughed his head off at her. It was one of their best nights. The next day he wanted her to repair them but she refused, calling them her ‘trophy pants’. He still wears them, but there’s no way she’s fixing them.
Pulling on the joggers, she walks into the kitchen and opens the fridge for her fruit and yoghurt. A raw steak on the top shelf stops her in her tracks: blood leaks from the plastic wrap. She could eat all of that now, raw. No she couldn’t. Yes, she could. She must be getting anaemic. Mia finds a plate and puts it under the mince. She’ll be eating it tonight, cooked, silly girl. Red would be laughing at her.
Oksy takes out the milk, pours herself a bowl of cereal and sits at the table to eat. Mia loads up a bowl of Greek yoghurt with strawberries, blueberries, cashews and a little drizzle of honey. Sitting down next to Oksy, she eats, unable to get ’until you have opened your hand’ out of her mind.
Picking up a biro, Mia writes the quote on the inside of her arm. Oksy takes the biro and tries to do the same but Mia won’t allow it. Instead, while Mia drinks her coffee, Oksy draws a big love heart and a cupid’s arrow on the palm of her mother’s hand with an ‘R&M’ in the middle.
Five minutes later Mia drives away in her white Prius, waving goodbye to Oksy and Jemma as they stand at the door. The first minute of her trip is all jacaranda trees dropping purple flowers. Ten minutes later it’s the bitumen and concrete of Darlinghurst and the Green Avenue Refuge.
Parking in a lane behind the refuge, she gets out, walks past a row of red and yellow garbage bins, unlocks the back door and heads to her office. No one’s waiting. She’s made it with a few minutes to spare.
She rifles through her in-tray, places chairs around a coffee table and checks her messages. Across the room from her desk is an A4 picture of a sunflower, which she hung herself. Below the flower are the words, Values of Green Avenue Women’s Refuge: respect, dignity, kindness, professionalism and safety. That last word is the question Suzy is asking. How can Mia talk of safety for the women when her high profile puts Green Avenue on front pages?
Suzy is the ‘justice’ girl around here. The first time Mia met Suzy, Mia was scared out of her wits. This skinhead, AIDS-infected woman in baggy rainbow pants supposedly carried a boning knife.
That would have been the end of the story if researchers hadn’t found a cure for AIDS and if Mia’s curiosity had not been aroused by a contradiction: wherever Suzy went, she handed out sunflowers to anyone who would take one. A hallmark of her presence was flowers strewn on the street.
A door opens, and a tall, wiry blonde wearing a green uniform walks in and sits across from Mia, placing a clipboard and a coffee on the table. A nametag on her shirt says ‘Suzy’. She looks at Mia a little too attentively, too much in awe. She always does. Mia remembers doing the same to Janie.
‘We had this snoop bitch here yesterday,’ Suzy says.
‘A journalist?’ Mia asks.
‘Yeah, for some radio station.’
‘How did she find us?’
‘She was like, “Hey girls! Your Mia is a celebrity.” She was lookin’ for shit on you and that Tate dude of yours.’
‘He’s not my dude. He’s a philanthropist.’
‘But you’re both on Facebook! Famous: you and him—and our fucking MP. What’s his name?’
‘Michael Spiers,’ Mia says. ‘He’s actually the federal Minister of Police.’
‘That’s him. They got dirt on him Mia. He’s a spider.’
‘Evidence or rumours?’
‘Whatever. It’s dirt and you’re next.’
‘That man got us a new kitchen last time,’ Mia says. ‘And the gym out the back.’
‘But there’s another thing too,’ Suzy says, sitting up straight as an arrow. ‘The girls are shit scared about every slimy old man and his dog lookin’ at you and knowin’ there’s a bunch of us livin’ right here at this address.’
Mia explains to Suzy—what Suzy already knows—that it’s too late for that; that the address of Green Avenue has been public knowledge for a long time, thanks to a previous neglect of policy.
‘But all this crap is just makin’ it worse,’ Suzy says.
‘No. I’m trying to fix the problem,’ Mia replies. ‘A new and secret location might even be an outcome of today’s meeting.’
‘Well anyway,’ Suzy says, standing up, ‘it’s a duty of care thing.’
The words ‘duty of care’ ring alarm bells in Mia’s mind. Suzy simply doesn’t use Department of Women’s Affairs language.
‘So, who’s actually been complaining?’ Mia says.
‘One of our new clients—she spoke to the big boss.’
‘The girls are all agreed: no more media shit. We don’t want to lose you.’
Conversation stops. Suzy goes back to watching her. Mia’s not aware of any moves to sack her, but Suzy seems to think this might be on the cards. Not that Suzy would really know.
The fact is, the big boss has a bigger boss somewhere who’s got it in for this government. How dare a little fish like Mia allow herself to be used as a re-election tool: the department has a reputation to look after. Meanwhile, the girls live in a shit hole! It’s all too hard.
‘You good, Mia?’ Suzy asks. ‘You look tired.’
‘I’m good,’ Mia says, tears welling.
‘No, Mia. You’re in a shit corner.’ Suzy takes her hand and squeezes it. ‘What if we go for lunch later?’
Mia declines, thanks her for putting her in the picture and explains that she has an appointment. Suzy walks back to her desk, which is just across the aisle from Mia’s. Suzy’s phone rings, a woman is screaming on the other end of the phone. Suzy stares hard at Mia and strides from the room.
Mia takes a deep breath. She’s now free to do her dirty deed. She calls a taxi and walks out the front door to wait what she knows will probably be no more than sixty seconds. It’s only 7.35 am, but the sun is already well up in the sky, heat shimmering on Darlinghurst bitumen.
The cabbie arrives in a white sedan. Double-checking her destination, he speeds away before Mia’s even finished buckling herself into the rear seat. She sinks into her bubble of misery, her Ray-Bans firmly in place and her mouth shut.
Sydney’s waterfront towers loom like an unwelcome jungle. How can she play for time without offending Tate? What if he’s invited the Minister of Police as well?
The taxi lets her out at a jetty where a blue and white yacht is moored. A giant of a man in a pale blue uniform stands looking at the yacht. He turns and waves. She recognises Slav: Tate’s olive-skinned, goatee-wearing security guru, his eyes embedded in horizontal fissures of brow.
Although he’s the alpha geek of Tate’s empire, KV Corp, Slav reminds Mia of Andre the Giant, a character in one of her favourite films, The Princess Bride. Like Andre, he’s smarter than his boss, but instead of shaggy hair he sports a crew cut and instead of reciting poems he tells IT jokes.
He turns to her and smiles. Without a word, he jerks a thumb upwards and escorts her to the top deck of the yacht where Tate and his blonde, once-was Barbie Doll, Claudia are seated beneath a shade. Tate is sunburnt and shirtless, his balding head sprinkled with sweat. Claudia reclines on a banana chair in red cotton tulle and smoky pink shades—a picture of wilted beauty.
Tate stands and shakes her hand, eyes probing her Ray-Bans. His red belly bulges over his shorts, looking as though it is only just supported by his legs. She’s seen him like this many times but today he looks more comical than ever. It’s all she can do not to burst out laughing. Claudia stays where she is and smiles. Mia takes a seat across the table from them.
‘Vodka?’ Tate offers, holding up a bottle.
‘No thanks,’ Mia says.
‘Love that undercut darling,’ Claudia says. ‘Makes those cheekbones look seriously Russian.’
‘Just needs to put a bit of weight on now,’ Tate says.
‘She does not,’ Claudia says. ‘Skinny is healthy.’
‘Bloody anorexic to me.’
‘For God’s sake dear, leave her alone!’
‘It’s a fact.’
‘Anyway—how was the meeting?’ Claudia asks.
Mia shakes her head in the negative and gazes out across the harbour, trying to gather her thoughts. It was probably a mistake to even come. Tate doesn’t like it when he suspects someone wants to fuck with him, as he would say.
Tate asks Mia what happened. Mia tells him she doesn’t know what to say, that there’s been a complication. Tate asks what she means by ‘complication’.
Mia says nothing and just sits there, flailing strands of hair blowing around her face. She should just get up now and go home. But home to what? A refuge that’s going broke, that’ll have to lay off more staff?
Somewhere below deck motors throb to life, sending a jolt through the yacht. Mia sways in her chair and the boat cruises out into the harbour.
‘I’ve got some good news,’ Tate says. ‘I spoke with Michael Spiers and he’s agreed to a bailout deal for all three refuges in Darlinghurst. He says the government will match me dollar for dollar. We’re talking five million.’
‘That’s a generous offer,’ Mia says, containing her excitement.
There’s a long pause. Claudia refills her glass. Mia stares across the water, waiting for him to come to the fine print.
‘Michael Spiers says a photo shoot will be an appropriate way of celebrating.’
Mia keeps a poker face. ‘Appropriate’ is Tate’s way of saying that the photo shoot is a non-negotiable political requirement. Mia’s going to have to find a solution that’s ‘appropriate’ for the girls: something that isn’t a picture of her stuck on a smiling poster with Spiers and Tate.
‘A photo shoot is out of the question,’ Mia says.
‘Come off it!’ Tate yells, banging both hands on the table. ‘You don’t quibble over half a million!’
‘This isn’t a quibble!’
‘It’s bloody ungodly,’ Tate says, pushing his chair back and standing up.
Mia looks up at the sky and the birds. Tate launches into a rant about beggars not being choosers and about her needing to show leadership, his eyes fastened on her a little too hungrily. And that’s the other problem. Maybe it’s the real problem. Mia’s worked so hard to get to this place and now it could all be jeopardised—if not by a rumour—by Tate’s fascination with her. Obsession, Red would say.
‘You know what Mia?’ Tate says, leaning towards her. ‘You’re full of shit.’
‘Tate!’ Claudia bellows in her husky smoker’s voice.
‘But she doesn’t give a damn.’
‘About what?’ Mia says, still trying to gather her thoughts. ‘Come on, tell me exactly what it is I don’t give a damn about.’
‘I do actually, but I also give a damn about the dignity of those women.’
’Jesus, Mia. There’s an election in four weeks. You might be waiting three years to get another chance like this. You keep this up and there won’t be any bloody refuges.’
Claudia interrupts Tate again. While the two of them argue, Mia thinks about Tate’s words: There won’t be any bloody refuges. There’s no way the government would let the refuge die, they would just keep the budget starved for the sake of their other priorities. And even if Green Avenue did get shut down and she was out of work, she and Red don’t have a house to pay off. She could get work in a cafe. Red would love it and so would Oksy. But what about the girls?
‘What’s happened to you?’ Tate says. ‘Three years ago, you and I worked hard to get Spiers on board and everyone was happy.’
‘Spiers isn’t the popular guy he was back then.’
‘Hey, it’s what you get when you’re the police minister.’
‘Is that so?’
‘Why risk five million just over a photograph?’
‘That’s not the point.’
‘Look! Spiers never goes to unlicensed brothels. Some would even argue that his lifestyle makes him an ideal patron for a women’s refuge.’
Mia wants to slap his face, to shout out everything she’s heard about Spiers. Instead, she walks to a deck railing and watches the approaching Harbour Bridge, its web of steel looming up and over her like the dark wing of some monster. The yacht sails underneath, the shadow passes and the bright and the blue come back on all sides.
‘It’s a fact of politics,’ Tate says. ’Without that photo-shoot, there will be no funding, period! And you can pray all you like, but at the end of the day you need people like me to find people like him and get some cash with no questions asked.’
‘The questions remain,’ she says, wondering yet again why it has to be this MP that they seek donations from.
A shipping horn booms out its lonely call. The breeze wafts briny fish odour and a droplet of sweat beads-up in Mia’s armpit. The droplet leaves a cool, ticklish sensation as it runs down her skin.
‘You two need to calm down,’ Claudia says, taking a long sip from her glass. ‘There must be a way.’
Tate grins, the broad purple-lipped contortion exposing teeth and gums and seeming to spread all the way from his mouth up the side of his face to the top of his bald patch. Mia wonders if this is it: one of Tate’s famous deal-ending tantrums. The purple turns to a deep red as if he’s going to pop, but instead of a brain-snap he hunches over the table and laughs.
‘Sorry Mia,’ he says, wiping his eyes with a towel. ‘It’s just bloody ludicrous. These sad bitches get up on their high horse and—’
‘Tate! Please!’ Claudia says.
‘What happened to my cheer squad?’ Tate says. ‘Mia the brunette with the business suit and the smiling cognac eyes?’
’It’s not about you,’ Mia says. Yes it is, an inside voice says.
‘What then? I’m all ears.’
‘Bullshit! It’s that bitch in Women’s Affairs. She’s always had it in for me and Mick.’
‘She has,’ Mia says. ‘But if that was all it was, I’d go ahead anyway. She’s a bitch to everyone.’
Claudia laughs out loud, fanning herself with a white, wide-brimmed hat. The sun beats down like a slow cooker. The yacht glides past an outcrop of brown rock where Mia once wore white lace and had a three-banded Russian ring placed on her finger by a hand as cracked and brown as her beloved Kimberley desert.
‘My Gorgeous man,’ she whispers, kissing the ring.
‘It’s just a photo, darling,’ Claudia says, looking at Tate. ‘Let it go.’
Mia smiles a thank you back at her but can’t help thinking about the way the word ‘darling’ came out of those generous red lips. Normally, even when Claudia’s drunk, it would have floated out confidently with a laugh and a joke. Today, it’s old lady-ish and kind of pleading.
‘Nuh,’ Tate says, looking at Mia. ‘There’s more to this, isn’t there?’
‘Go home dear,’ Claudia says. ‘Go to mass and we can talk about it later.’
’There is actually more to it!’ Mia says. ‘We had a journalist visit and my girls are scared.’
‘About these rumours. About Green Avenue being associated with him.’
‘The rumours are shit!’
‘But they have children, for God’s sake. They think he’s—’
‘A paedophile! Yeah, yeah. You know how many MP’s are rumoured to be pedos at election time?’
‘It’s still a problem.’
‘And what about you? Is this how you treat the guy who got you a hundred grand last time?’
‘I look after my girls.’
‘And hide behind those sunnies and lies while I do your dirty work.’
‘Tate!’ Claudia shouts. ‘For Christ’s sake, give them a few dollars.’
Tate laughs and tells Claudia to go get some of her own money. Claudia raises an eyebrow at Mia and smiles at a secret they both share: for years now, Claudia has been an unofficial patron of the refuge.
‘We’re all Catholics here, right?’ Tate says.
‘Uh huh,’ Mia says, knowing where this is going.
‘It’s like this Mia. God needs men like me and Spiers to get his shit together.’
‘Stop it Tate,’ Claudia says.
‘Shut up!’ He waves a hand at her. ‘And for Christ sake Mia, take those bloody shades off so we can at least see each other!’
‘Okay. No cognac eyes today, just them bloody great snarling lips and—’ Tate stops in mid-sentence. ‘Such a nice arse too.’
‘Please dear.’ Claudia says, says, looking across the harbour.
‘I’ll go wherever I want!’ he yells at her and whips his head back at Mia. ‘If Spiers loses his seat, I lose my security contract, you lose your funding and your bitches can go back to where they belong.’
‘We’ll find a way.’
‘Sure. Back to square one. A smelly little office with linoleum, poetry and bad air conditioning.’
‘You might lose your security contract anyway,’ Mia says. ‘Photo or no photo.’
‘Not in a million years.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘It’s called a “Magic Wand” my dear.’
‘Of course not.’ Tate laughs at her like she’s a child. ‘You just need one MP to get started.’
‘Started on what?’
‘Influence. Soon you have two, three and away you go: you have your magic wand and good things just start falling into your lap.’
‘So Spiers is your tool?’
‘That’s a bit harsh. “Ally” is a better word. And he can be yours too, sweetheart, if you’ll only stay in the game.’
’Game of what? Of being yours?’
‘Yes!’ Mia yells, leaning across the table at him. ’That is exactly what this is about. But I’m not yours, okay? Now please take me back to the jetty.’
She’s just burned the house down. What the hell did she do that for? Sleazy is why. He’s been creeping at her a little too much lately. At least Suzy will be happy now.
Tate shrugs and sends a text. The boat slows and does a U-turn. Heaving and rolling and sending up showers of spray, they head back the way they came.
‘Spiers thinks the world of you,’ Tate says, grinning. ’He told me the other day that with your stage presence and oomph, all he has to do now is give you a short course in politics, stick a cigar between those teeth, and you could be his—’
‘Succession plan! I know! He’s told me a thousand times, especially when he’s drunk.’
‘You should think about it.’
‘No way! You should think about what it’s like for those girls, having a man they think is a spider using them to get votes.’
‘Hear! Hear!’ Claudia cheers.
Tate shrugs, places some ice in his glass and swallows a mouthful of bourbon.
‘Welcome to the real world Miss Million,’ he says. ‘Have you ever thought what it’s like for Mick Spiers to work his guts out for them when all they do is spread rumours?’
‘Not just rumours,’ Mia says.
‘So,’ he says. ‘Why not sort this out with Mick now?’
‘I have to go as soon as we get back to the jetty,’ Mia says, messaging for a taxi.
‘I can fly him out in my bloody helicopter in twenty minutes.’
‘But you’ve got that nanny, Jemma. She can take Oksy to mass.’
‘She could,’ Mia says—surprised that Tate would know the name of her nanny—‘but I have a carol rehearsal.’
‘What about poor old Father Kelvin? What will he think when “Our Lady of Song” shows up for mass like this?’
‘What on earth are you talking about?’
‘All this shit,’ Tate say, taking her hand in his sweaty one and turning it over, showing the love heart. ‘Not just a ridiculous hairstyle—might as well be covered in bloody tattoos.’
‘Calm down old man,’ Claudia says, trying to pull his hand away from Mia’s.
‘Who drew that?’ he asks, pointing at the love heart.
Mia turns away and focuses on the deep blue water, waiting for him to let go. Alarm bells ring in her head. He’s more aggressive than ever today. She should just yank her arm free and tell him to go to hell, but then again, it could be right here—at this close and personal level—that he agrees to a compromise. He often does. Still no one speaks. Sea birds call and the ocean swells and rolls as if trying to get something out.
‘Who?’ Tate asks again.
‘You already know who.’
‘What about all this other shit you’ve got scribbled on your arm?’ he says, trying to read the quote.
‘It’s from a fantasy novel.’
‘Seriously, Mia, this is high school shit. What’s it say anyway?’
‘You don’t want to know.’
‘Yes I do.’
‘Okay,’ she says. ‘Even if you lie there a thousand years you will not sleep until you have opened your hand and yielded that which was never yours to keep or to give.’
‘Uh huh—and who’s tryin’ to sleep?’
‘And who the fuck is Lilith?’
‘The Queen of Hell,’ she says, smiling.
Mia’s eyes meet Claudia’s. Claudia grins stupidly. Is this going anywhere at all? So much for deal negotiation: Tate is now on another planet—a drunk planet.
‘Queen of Hell?’ Tate nudges Claudia. ‘New name for our Mia, eh?’
‘That’s not funny dear.’
‘Well—’ he says, ‘she spends a lot of time there. Striding off down The Cross with those long legs, scaring the shit out of the dealers. But if it wasn’t—’
‘For Tate’s money!’ Mia snaps.
‘Can we talk about something else?’ Claudia says.
‘We can,’ Tate says. ‘This Lilith bird, what’s she got in her hand?’
‘Everything she cares about.’
Claudia looks at Tate. Tate looks at Mia, shaking his head.
‘Let me guess,’ Tate slurs, squeezing Mia’s hand. ‘She won’t open it because … she’s like you!’
Tate explodes into a fit of laughter, almost falling off his chair, saliva dripping from the corner of his mouth. Mia pulls her hand away and stands up. The jetty is in sight now.
Red is right, this man is a fuckwit! Yes, God might want her to deal with the devil for the sake of the girls, but surely God doesn’t expect her to do it like this. Her abbot, the priest, the nuns at the school, everyone loves Green Avenue—but not at this price.
‘What if we drive her to mass, dear?’ Claudia says. ‘We could even go with her.’
‘But we haven’t been for ages.’
‘Kelvin and me still do our confessions.’
Tate wipes sweat off his forehead.
‘No! We’re talking serious shit, Claudia my dear. Man to man. Without Kelvin I’d be buggered.’
‘Too late for that, honey.’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘You tell him darling,’ Claudia says, nodding at Mia.
Mia smiles and says nothing. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This is a ‘Claudia and Mia only’ conversation: one that’s been running for years.
’Too late for what?’ Tate says, enunciating each word.
‘For us not to be buggered, as you call it,’ Claudia says, flopping an arm over the side of her chair.
‘You know what I’m talking about.’ Claudia smiles and looks at Mia. ‘It’s why you’re here, isn’t it Mia darling? He wants to bugger your life as well.’
‘See that flag down there,’ Tate says, pointing to a flag on the bow.
‘Yes dear, I know,’ Claudia says. ‘You built KV Corp and you even designed the dolphin on the flag. Without you we’d all be buggered, right?’
The bridge looms up again and they pass under it. Claudia grins—a terrified grin—at Mia. It’s time to close up shop but the social worker in Mia dreads leaving Claudia like this.
The big motors throb. The yacht surges in the direction of the jetty, bow waves whacking and hissing. Tate turns redder, clearly unable to think of anything other than his next move in Mia’s direction.
‘That Oksy of yours is a beautiful girl,’ Claudia says to Mia.
‘She is,’ Mia says.
‘I had a beautiful boy … once,’ Claudia continues.
’Shit, what is this?’ Tate says, shaking his head.
Mia goes cold. Claudia seems determined to bring out that conversation.
‘Please, Tate!’ Claudia says. ’This is me, the mother, okay? One day young Kerrod asks his mother a question, and while I’m fumbling around for a satisfactory lie, I realise he isn’t even listening, he’s just watching and seeing straight through all my shit.’
‘But you were a good mother Clauds,’ Tate says.
‘We both know who became his real mother don’t we?’ Claudia says. ‘Claudia’s off high as a kite—can’t cope. So she puts him into music lessons with the sweet Janie. Isn’t that right, Mia? You were there.’
Mia nods. Tate takes another drink. Kerrod was rumoured to have been an abused child.
‘Why did he have to die, Mia?’ Claudia says. ‘Why did they both have to die, and only one day apart?’
Mia stands up, turns her back on them and walks to the deck railing. Janie, Janie, Janie! Everywhere. Mia leans over, sucking in lungfuls of air and trying to get her thoughts back on track. A flock of seagulls cruises up alongside the boat and hangs, suspended like a mobile.
‘Do we keep rolling the dice?’ she asks the birds.
‘Hey, Mia!’ Tate yells.
Ignoring him, Mia watches the birds holding their position. Something about the streamlined energy of their bodies makes her want to dive in and swim all the way back to those brown rocks and teleport herself to wherever her man is in some jungle with his commando unit. The scrape of a chair on the deck signals that Tate is on his way over.
‘What?’ she says, still looking at the birds.
‘We do have other options.’
‘Hear that noise?’ she whispers to the gulls. ‘That’s my mammon man.’
‘Mia,’ Tate says, placing a hand on her shoulder. ‘What about we meet with Mick tomorrow?’
‘See that hand on my shoulder,’ Mia says to the gulls, her voice raised, ‘this is the man who bought you your perch. Who thinks I’m his tool.’ And, she tells herself, it’s time to ship out, a thought that calls to mind a piece of Saul Williams’ poetry. Breaking into a smile, she sings the poetry in a mocking operatic voice, ‘Hey big white birds! “Check it out now! Check me out now! At the helm of the ship, shipping out now!”’
The birds go, the hand slides off her shoulder and she turns to survey the damage, which is better than she had imagined. A What the fuck? look is plastered all over Tate’s face. Claudia has her head in her hands, her shoulders quivering with laughter.
‘That was a great performance,’ Claudia chuckles. ‘Janie would be proud.’
‘What is it with you?’ Tate says as they go back to the table. ‘I ask a simple question and you’re singing to the birds!’
‘It was a soliloquy.’
‘A soliloquy to birds?’
‘Calm down dear,’ Claudia says, giggling. ‘It’s her Russian DNA.’
‘Do you want to hear it again?’ Mia says, delighted at Claudia’s explanation.
‘Can we talk serious?’ Tate asks.
‘I take it we have a definite “No” to Spiers. But what about a photo with me?’
At last, the tiniest of compromises has happened. Mia takes her Ray-Bans off and is about to say ‘maybe’ but hesitates. A black look crosses his face. Claudia shifts in her chair.
‘So I’m a fucking pedo too?’ he growls.
‘Stop it,’ Claudia says.
‘She didn’t say that.’
‘No one’s accusing you of being a paedophile,’ Mia says.
Tate swigs the rest of his glass and walks to the deck railing on the other side of the boat. The colour drains from his face. The black look turns to a fixed stare, which Mia knows to be a sign of simmering rage.
‘Tate!’ Claudia says. ‘Calm down.’
‘She should show some respect.’
‘Respect?’ Claudia says. ’We called her, remember.’
’We? What’s this we? You called her.’
‘Yes darling, but you made me do it.’
The game has changed. Tate stares deadpan at Claudia as if he’s suddenly noticed her for the first time and wonders why she’s even there. Claudia avoids his gaze. There’s a sharp gust of wind and a loud ‘slap!’ from the flag. Tate watches the approaching wharf.
The big motors roar, the yacht slows to a heaving stop and bumps against the jetty. Tate takes out his phone, types something into it and puts it back in his pocket. The breeze has died down. The rise and fall of the swell is only just perceptible.
A guard walks up on deck with an esky, places more drinks on the table and walks away. Tate refills his glass and offers one to Mia. Mia declines.
’Now is a good time to go, girl,’ Claudia says quietly, taking her eyewear off and looking at Mia.
If Claudia had been screaming at her to get off the boat, she couldn’t have been more emphatic. Mia stoops, picks up her bag to go and then stops, riveted by an unmistakably real exchange of glances between Claudia and Tate. What exactly was that about?
Before Mia can ask, Claudia shuffles off downstairs, bawling. Tate starts to follow her, then turns and lumbers back to Mia, standing in front of her like he’s reporting for duty.
‘So: compromise or not?’ she asks.
‘You win round one, Miss Million. What do you want me to say to Mick?’
‘Yes, but first, how about a toast to round two?’
Mia watches in disbelief as Tate picks up a bottle of lemon, lime and bitters and raises his eyebrows in a question. She nods. He pours her a glass. She clinks hers with his bourbon and drinks thirstily.
Her head swims and she almost falls. Tate holds out a hand and steadies her, a cheeky smile on his face. She collapses into his arms, trying to scream, but nothing comes out. This is what Claudia was trying to warn her about. How stupid of her.
‘Right to go?’ an unfamiliar male voice asks.
Strong arms lift and carry her. A cloth is dropped over her face. The sun is warm on her body. Whoever carries her does so easily, swinging her around corners like she’s a dinner tray.
The warmth fades and the one carrying her slows. They seem to be going down: down stairs. Her head bumps a sharp corner; her foot kicks something. Her big toe hurts. She’s placed, face up, on a hard, cold surface.
A woman starts screaming. It’s Claudia. A door slams, and the screams fade as if a volume knob has been turned down.
‘Nice,’ she hears Tate say.
He explains that she’s on camera now, that she’s being added to his ‘Magic Wand’. He tells her it’s a shame she can’t smile. She wishes he would shut up. That he would just give her some space from his Bourbon breath and his chemical-factory aftershave.
‘Nobody calls me a fucking paedophile,’ he says.
Fingers tug at her clothes. Her heart races; it seems he actually intends to rape her. She tries to fight but can’t do anything. The pulling and fiddling keeps going. It’s done now: she’s stripped, her bare body lying on a cold surface, unable to move. A hand is placed on her belly and some kind of flower-scented oil is rubbed all over her.
The cloth is removed from her face. A brown bathrobe dangles above her. The robe crumples as Tate drops to his hands and knees and plants his face next to hers, dripping with sweat.
‘Your mascara’s running,’ he says, dabbing at her eyes with his robe.
He takes the robe off. Rolls of fat bulge against her. He opens a bottle of pills, tells her it’s time for a fuel up and throws purple tablets down his throat. This has been a long time coming, he tells her. She closes her eyes and prays silently.
Help me—please help me, Jesus!
She opens her eyes again. Tate smiles at her and tells her she can go home soon, that her daughter will be waiting for her, that they all just had a great day on the harbour. There’s a long silence and he adds the question, ‘Didn’t we?’
‘You!’ the word comes out of her mouth with surprising force, leaving her struggling to finish what she wants to say. While she tries, he cuts her off.
‘No one need ever know,’ he says, ‘except us, every now and then.’
‘He—will kill!’ she says, imagining Red’s violent reaction.
‘He’ll be a dead man if you say one word!’ Tate yells, pushing what feels like a gun barrel into her neck. ‘And you’ll never see your daughter again.’
‘Jesus—Son—of Mary,’ she prays, closing her eyes.
‘I’ve been looking forward to this,’ he says, placing a hand on her breast.
She fades, pouring down into blackness. She can’t go under like this. Oksy will be coming home from school. She has to fight. She slides into unconsciousness.
She wakes to the noise of a loud, slow knocking, each knock seeming to push her body against something. It has to be the yacht, bumping against its mooring.
Both knees hurt. She seems to be folded up in a prayer position, her nose squashed down onto the floor by a heavy weight. It dawns on her that the weight is her head.
A sharp pain pulsates in her breast. Her groin aches. Her body convulses with fits of shivering. He got what he wanted. Why didn’t she see it coming?
Maybe she hasn’t actually been raped.
Please God, let this not be rape.
She tries opening her eyes. The lids don’t work. She tries to call out. Her tongue just slithers around helplessly, licking what must be the floor. Such a cold floor and such a bitter taste. How stupid of her to take that drink.
Everything tilts. She falls over like a tumbling toy: pins and needles rush into her arms and legs, which flop around like quarters of meat. Pain shoots along her legs. She stretches them out and rolls flat on her back, gasping for breath.
Her eyes blink open. Light blazes on a white ceiling. Is this a hospital? She might have been dreaming about the boat. But, hospitals don’t stink of Tate’s aftershave. They don’t roll and tilt.
God! Where were you? What have they done with my Oksy?
She places both hands on the skin of her hips. Her fingers begin drumming a rhythm, like they’re happy. She’ll find Oksy. She’ll find her, and she and Red will—the thought stops in mid-train. She needs to get real.
Why has no one come looking for her? How long has she been here? Phone calls must be doing the rounds. Her Gorgeous will be furious—unless, of course, her amazingness has finally driven him away forever.
‘Time to get up girl,’ she tells herself, lifting her head.
She tries to sit up. A stab of headache forces her back down. Taking deep breathes, she grits her teeth and climbs up off the floor in a slow peeling of body off linoleum. A thin rope of mucous slides down the inside of her thigh. She has been raped. Thank God for a contraceptive implant.
Steadying herself against a wall, she walks to the loo. On the way, a big drop of blood falls to the floor from her breast. She pads her breast down with toilet paper and wipes the blood off the floor.
The bathroom mirror tells the story: bruises all over her body and what looks like a bite wound on her breast. And her wedding ring—gone. What kind of person is this? Not a person for starters. A monster with a message: I can do all this and more whenever I want.
In a nearby bedroom she finds her clothes neatly folded, her car keys and phone next to them. The phone says 2 am. Messages have piled up: mostly from Jemma and Oksy. Replies have been sent to all the enquiries, explaining that Mia’s at a party and will be home very late.
Where the hell is that wedding ring?
She goes on a drawer-tipping search for the ring. But there’s nothing—just a thoroughly cleaned piece of hell. Time to call the police.
She dials 000. A voice answers. She hesitates, remembering Tate’s threat: You’ll never see your daughter again. She ends the call. She can’t believe she just did that. He wouldn’t dare! Wouldn’t he? She needs to act now. No she doesn’t, she needs time to think.
A fresh message pops up from Suzy.
Where are you Mia? We had a suicide. I’m not coping.
‘Yes you will Suz,’ she says through a flood of tears, texting her a can’t come now. ‘You’re my rock. You always cope. You have to.’
Up on deck there’s not a soul on the wharf. Lights are out everywhere. A brightly lit ferry-ful of partygoers sails past. A pale crescent moon hangs over the bridge.