Morning in Melbourne
Copyright 2016 Nicole Taylor
Published by Brunette Publishing at Shakespir
Shakespir Edition License Notes
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This book is dedicated to every woman of a Certain Age who finds herself suddenly single, and at the start of a whole new, unimagined life.
This is a work of fiction.
Any resemblance the characters may have to persons living or deceased
is co-incidental and unintentional.
“It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.”
He might have been the tallest, baldest man Louise had ever seen. He looked a few years older than her, but roughly the same age bracket. Only much, much taller.
Not spindly-tall, or chunky-tall; just tall.
He was inspecting the “For Sale” sign attached to the brick wall which enclosed the front courtyard of an old, two-storey townhouse. He turned as Louise approached, inspected her, and smirked.
“It’s already been sold,” he informed her regretfully.
“I know,” Louise answered. “I bought it.
It was perfect. Louise had to double check the suburb, just in case there was a mistake. But no, it really was just down the road. How had she missed it? How could she not have known of such a perfect house, just three streets away?
Lou switched off the computer and grabbed her bag, checking that her mobile phone, keys and wallet were all present and accounted for. Should she drive or walk? Drive – it would be faster and there was no time to lose. And, with any luck, she would be driving back to the realtor’s office. The house had just been listed and pretty soon everyone else who was trying to find a 4 bedroom home for under half a million dollars in a leafy Melbourne suburb – and within walking distance of the train station, the primary school, the high school and the shops – would be there too, throwing money at the estate agent. This was her house and she had to get there first.
She drove the 90 seconds it took to get to the property from her home and parked in front of the enormous For Sale placard that hung on the high brick wall of the courtyard. The house was, in fact, an old-style townhouse; one of 12 on the site and built in 1966 – the first “medium density” dwellings constructed in this post-war suburb. The agent was already there and, having identified her as his prospective client, he walked towards her with his hand extended.
“Louise Clark? I’m Jason Jones. Let’s go in and take a look, shall we?” He smilingly ushered Lou down the driveway and onto the front porch. “You must have seen our ad the minute it went online! You are the first caller on this property.”
The townhouses were built in two long rows; mirrored sets of semi-detached buildings which faced each other across a narrow concrete driveway. This one was on the street end, and had its own driveway leading into the space behind the townhouse. Only the two end townhouses had street driveways. The other ten could only be accessed via the pipe-stem driveway which the led to the individual carports.
At the bottom of this common driveway was a large, grassy area with tall, old, leafy trees. It was fenced and the railway line could be seen running directly beyond the fence, parallel to it.
The townhouses were white painted brick, two-story A-frame dwellings with dormer windows upstairs. All the windows had colonial squares, and these were painted chocolate brown to match the front doors. Mature trees lining the driveway, and the individual gardens of each townhouse – lushly planted with camellias and azaleas of every hue – gave the overall impression of a grouping of fairy tale grandmother’s homes; somewhere a little girl might find pink patty cakes being baked for her afternoon tea by a smiling, plump woman in a floral apron. Louise sighed and allowed Jason to steer her into the house.
It wasn’t a large place. The main living room was, in fact, the only living room – unless you wanted to count the good-sized formal dining room which Louise knew would become the much needed fourth bedroom. But what a room! In addition to the large picture window at the front of the house which gave a view of the townhouse across the driveway, on the adjacent external wall there were not one but two separate sets of French windows opening onto the courtyard. The wall enclosing the courtyard was about two and a half meters high – not that you could see it, obscured as it was by mature camellias and ivy. A huge, old maple tree growing on the footpath provided a leafy canopy high above the courtyard, and a wrought iron gate set into the wall gave access to the driveway and carport which were situated behind the unit.
“How much?” The ad had said ‘Offers over $330,000’ but Louise knew that that was ridiculously low and that realtors often listed homes for much less than what they knew they would ultimately fetch as a marketing ploy, so she all but ignored this price.
The kitchen was in its original 1966 condition; as were the bathrooms. The carpet was good, though, and so was the paint. The venetians were definitely 1966 though; the light-fittings, too.
But each of her three kids could have their own bedroom; and it was in “their” neighbourhood.
“Well,” Jason smiled even harder. “It is a silent auction.”
“What does that mean?” Lou had attended fund-raising silent auctions run by her kids’ various schools over the years, but had never heard of a house being sold that way.
“It means that prospective purchasers put in written bids for what they think the house is worth, and whoever offers the highest amount, gets it.”
“No. That’s how the vendor wanted to do it.”
“Oh, some people don’t want to go through the usual auction process.”
“So, why not just list it for a stated price? How am I supposed to guess the amount?”
But Jason had an answer for that, too. “Just put in a bid and we will let you know if yours is the successful one at the end of the marketing period.”
Jason clearly hadn’t understood that Louise was not looking for any house. This was the house. It was the only one she could move her family into in this neighbourhood because it was the only four bedroom home she could afford in this neighbourhood. Jason wasn’t worried because he was happy to sell her another house – any house. His commission was the same no matter who bought the property. In this suburb, he knew it would sell. And, once she lodged her bid, he would know her buying capacity.
“No.” Louise had out her chequebook and was writing a cheque. When she had finished, she tore it off and gave it to Jason. “Here is a cheque for $10,000. This is my good faith money. I am going to make an offer on this townhouse.”
“But we are not taking any deposits!” Jason raised his hands in the surrender motion and would not accept the cheque.
“Oh, but you must!” insisted Louise. “You have offered this property for sale as of this morning. As the agent, you must by law tell the vendor of every offer made on it. I am making an offer of –“ here Louise rummaged around for a figure.
She knew it was worth $400,000 and would happily pay that much for it. But she also knew that it may not attract the people who normally part with that sort of money in 2005 for a townhouse in this area because it required at least $50,000 expenditure immediately, and the time to do the necessary renovations. Not many people would be prepared to live in a place of this size while it was being renovated. Naturally, she didn’t want to spend any more than she had to, so she compromised.
The recent sales records showed that, over the past few months, most places sold for at least 10% more than the “price indicator” suggested. So she took the plunge.
“- $365,000. And as I am the first person to make an offer, and I have paid a substantial amount as proof of my good intention, you must inform the vendor now, and inform me of any higher offer, and give me the chance to better it. However, I’ll have my solicitor negotiate with you so that we can verify that any other offers are accompanied by actual deposits.”
“I’m n-not sure –“ Jason stuttered, his smile waning.
“That’s the law – check it out!” Louise knew she was being aggressive, and held the cheque out till he took it. Not for the first time, Louise was grateful for all those years of commercial law she had studied as part of her accounting degree.
“There is an open house this Saturday,” said Jason. “We have to go ahead with that. All the advertising has already been arranged.”
Louise understood. The estate agency had already organised – and charged the vendor for – the advertising. Her house would be inspected by all comers and there was nothing she could do about it. The realtors used these open houses as marketing nets for other possible home-buying clients and this one was too good to miss.
“I’ll be here,” she said. “Thanks Jason. See you Saturday.”
After that, it had just been a matter of telling her husband that she had bought a small house nearby and would be moving into it before Christmas. His disbelief was difficult to deal with, because it brought home to Louise the enormity of her actions.
While she had been arranging the purchase, another part of her brain had taken over – the practical, business part. Arranging the mortgage; releasing the cash from the investment account for the full 10% deposit (less the $10,000 good faith payment); obtaining quotes for removal of the furniture that would fit into the new home, and auction of the other pieces.
“Wouldn’t you know it!” Lou complained over the phone to her sister, Jane, who lived interstate. “Only the things we got at Freedom Furniture fifteen years ago will fit into the townhouse. All the lovely valuable things we’ve collected over the years won’t fit at all.”
“Won’t Jeff want them?” Jane had suggested.
“I doubt it,” said Louise.
But the fact was, she hadn’t asked him. He hadn’t spoken to her for so long that it seemed ridiculous to ask him about furniture, particularly when he didn’t yet know she was leaving him. He’d locked her out of the bedroom months ago, so there were fewer and fewer opportunities to have a word with him about anything – let alone something as monumental as this. The only time they were together was at the dinner table.
Perhaps he knew. Perhaps he avoided being alone with her so she couldn’t speak to him about the future.
But there was more than one way to communicate. Actions speak louder than words.
And then, like a bolt from heaven, came the message from their landlord. They were returning to Melbourne and were giving Jeff and Louise six weeks’ notice to vacate.
In the fifteen years of their marriage, they had never lived anywhere for more than a few years. Jeff had received an enormous golden handshake as a redundancy package earlier in the year, and had been planning to return to his native United States ever since. He hadn’t discussed it with Louise; hadn’t raised it as a possibility, an option that they could consider together, or as a family. Jeff had decided that they should move to Texas, where the colleges were good and the houses affordable.
But Louise, who was Australian, wasn’t prepared to make that mistake again. They had lived in the United States previously and despite enjoying that beautiful country, and all their wonderful American neighbours and relatives, it had been a most difficult time in their marriage. For one thing, Jeff had no job to go to; so how long would they be there anyway? And for another, the next time the family moved, Louise wanted to be consulted about the destination, not merely informed, like a minor employee who was being told that they were relocating to a new office, and to start packing.
But it was more than that, too. There was something about not being a citizen in a foreign country that significantly impacted your ability to plan your future there. Louise hadn’t analysed it, but it was there, and she knew that she could only ever be Australian. She missed her own family ties and was jealous of her American friends at Thanksgiving. She wanted to play cricket with her brothers in her parent’s big backyard on Australia day and watch her mother tell her brother that the sausages were burning on the barbeque. She wanted to drive through country New South Wales to Brisbane on the Newell Highway and marvel that it had not changed one bit in the 25 years she had been driving it – same potholes, same broken signs. She wanted to call directories and be able to ask for any number in the country without having to first find the directories number of the particular state she wanted. She wanted to be with “her mob”.
So, they had six weeks to find another home. That was exactly the same amount of time as the settlement period on the sale contract. Some things are meant to be.
Louise told Jeff while he was changing after a visit to the gym. She stood in the hall outside the bedroom and spoke into the room, unable to see Jeff in the walk-in closet. The kids were in the next room and the door was wide open.
“You did what?” Jeff emerged, still pulling on his T-shirt, red faced and angry, ready to change from disbelief to fury.
“I bought a townhouse around the corner. It has four bedrooms so we will all fit.”
“We are not buying a townhouse.”
“I already bought it.”
“How did you do that?” Jeff was ridiculing her now.
“I got a mortgage on the strength of my income. I’m on pretty good money now, and I used the unit I bought before we got married as collateral.”
“So you used my money for the deposit?”
Louise took a deep breath. This was a sore point and Jeff was trying to divert the discussion. “If you are asking me if I used the money in our joint account, no I didn’t. I used the money I’ve saved since I’ve been back at work.”
“How much is that?”
“You have given them $30,000?”
“So it will cost you $30,000 to walk away from this?”
“I’m not walking away from it Jeff. I want to buy this house and I have bought it.”
“So, the money you save is your money, but the money I earn is our money?”
“Come off it,” Louise rolled her eyes and shook her head. “If you mean the pittance you put into the joint cheque account – please! You earn ten times that, and I have no idea where you put it. Not into the joint account, that’s for sure.”
“Just as well!”
“Jeff, we have three school aged kids. They need a home. This is James’ tenth school and he is about to start the VCE exams. I’m not moving him from Melbourne High. Our kids don’t have a home town and Melbourne has been our home for the past two years. I want to stay here. We all do.”
“Well, we have moved with you many times before. Now it is our turn to choose. And I have a good job here.”
“And I don’t have a job, right?”
“But we still live on my money, so I still get a say.” Jeff walked past her into the hall, preparing to go down to the lounge room. She sighed and followed him.
But Jeff soon realised that his wife had made a financial decision without consulting him and executed it without reference to what he wanted. At first he refused to look at the townhouse; then finally he agreed to take the kids through it.
He was both satisfied and horrified by it.
“You can’t live in that,” he said. “The kitchen is uninhabitable. It will have to be replaced.”
The kitchen was divided down the middle by a bench with cupboards both underneath and overhanging it. They were built of a dark brown synthetic made to appear like wood, but managing only to look like an ugly imitation. The walls were lined with cupboards made of the same stuff, and the floor was covered with an old, sturdy black lino with a white fleck through it. It was hideous and gloomy, but the upright stove and oven were new and the water ran clean.
“I don’t have any more money to do anything to the house,” said Louise. “It is functional and will have to stay as it is.”
“Then I suppose it will be up to me to replace it, won’t it?” Jeff looked pleased to be able to identify a mess Louise had created and which he alone could rectify. “I’m leaving on the 18th of February, so that gives me about 6 weeks to rebuild the kitchen. I’ll put in an Ikea kitchen. As soon as I find a job, we can get a place in the States and you can bring the kids over.” Louise listened as Jeff related his plan for their future. “Ikea kitchens are pretty good – you can choose whichever one you like best and I will put it in. It will be fine for a rental property, which is what this place will be.”
Oh – is that what it will be? Louise thought.
And Jeff had set to work. He measured the space and drew plans and wrote down figures and made 400 trips to the Richmond Ikea store. It was quite exciting actually. The new kitchen was beautiful and, as soon as they removed the old cupboards and counters, it became apparent that the kitchen floor area was quite large. Not only that, but the removal of the over-hanging cupboards allowed the matching double windows to dominate the room. Suddenly the gloomy, over-built, overly black-and-brown room was awake and alive and alight with sunshine and white enamelled wood with glass front cupboards. Even the floor was a pearly cream-and-grey lino rendition of ceramic tiles.
And then Jeff had packed his bags and booked his flight.
“You don’t seem sorry to see me go,” he remarked as he got out of the car at the airport. He had said goodbye to the kids that morning, insisting that they not miss school; and insisted also that Louise drop him off at the airport door, and not park the car.
“I’m just so relieved that I’m not going too,” answered Louise.
Jeff looked surprised and disappointed. Louise had spoken without thinking, and while she was sorry her words were so blunt, she had to own them. She hadn’t meant to sound selfish but she couldn’t think of how to soften the message without disowning the sentiment, and it was definitely time to let Jeff see that she had an opinion, and she definitely had a preference for staying – anywhere. Somewhere. Here.
They’d married in what was to become known as the first year of the drought that plagued Australia for more than a decade. El Nino was named as the culprit, and it was generally regarded as an unusual event, but Louise had spent time in the outback a quarter of a century earlier; had seen the huge, earth-splitting cracks in the land that could only be attributed to unabating dry heat. She remembered the words to a song they’d sung in primary school: “I love a sunburnt country/a land of sweeping plains/of rugged mountain ranges/ of droughts, and flooding rains”. The drought was lauded as the ‘worst on record’; but since the records only went back less than 200 years and the land was three billion years old, that wasn’t saying very much, really.
Their marriage had shown stress cracks before they moved to Melbourne from Sydney, where they’d been living happily for more than 3 years. Jeff left them in June, the middle of the school year, to take up the new position in Melbourne. Louise and the kids remained in Sydney, in their beautiful home, in their lovely street of familiar neighbours, in their established schools. They were an hour’s drive from Louise’s youngest sister, who lived on the NSW central coast, and just 3 hour’s drive from the rest of Louise’s family in Canberra.
But Jeff had hated his job in Sydney. He arrived home each day, silent and ashen-faced. Louise became concerned for his health, and when he was offered the job in Melbourne with another company, she wasn’t surprised that he accepted it. Her own part-time job, though professional, didn’t contribute much to the family funds, and they dutifully followed Jeff wherever he decided to go. And he decided to go, on average, every 22 months.
Jeff had insisted that they sell the home she loved in Braeside St, Wahroonga. He said they couldn’t buy a home in Melbourne until they’d sold the Sydney house. Louise saw the sense in this, but hadn’t anticipated her husband’s ultimate plan: to avoid purchasing a home and just settle the family in a rented house.
Perhaps it was he who had anticipated the end of the marriage.
So, they’d sold their gorgeous home in one of the best streets in beautiful Wahroonga for over a million dollars, and moved to Melbourne. It was Christmas, 2003.
Jeff had rented a house for the family months before they even arrived. “Aren’t we buying a house?” asked Lou.
“Sure,” said Jeff. “This is just somewhere to live while we are looking.”
So, Louise started to search for a home to buy. After a year, there was little she didn’t know about property values in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. But no matter what Louise found, Jeff found fault with it.
“He’s not going to buy you a house,” her mother explained. “It’s obvious. He’s sending you off on a wild goose chase, looking at houses want to buy; then rejecting everything you come up with. It keeps you busy, and he can blame you for not finding the perfect house for a price he is willing to pay.” Her mother chuckled. “How dumb are you?”
Louise was horrified. Mum was right! And looking back over Jeff’s history – he didn’t like buying real estate. Even his parents had never bought a home. When Jeff’s father had left his mother after 30 years of marriage, the only asset they had to split was his retirement account. They’d lived all over the world in ambassadorial residences and had seven kids, but didn’t own a home. Louise shuddered to think of ending up like her mother-in-law, who at 55 had had to start from scratch.
Why did so many women let the man in their life be the decider of their home address and financial status? Why this clinging to what was surely a medieval attitude – and irrelevant, considering that most marriages last for 9 years yet most people these days live to be 90?
Louise decided that she was only going to be able to cope with her new life if she dealt with it just one day at a time. Anything more would overwhelm her and add to the already mounting pile of issues that needed to be dealt with urgently.
“Can I have double bunks?” Peter had never been allowed to have double bunks before, and he was wondering if the new regime meant that previously forbidden items were now allowed.
“I want to paint my room pink!” Camille had wanted to decorate her bedroom walls for a couple of years now but had been fobbed off with the ‘we can’t, we’re only renting’ rebuff.
“Will we be keeping the cleaner?” James had his eye firmly affixed to the low maintenance aspects of their new home, and didn’t want to downgrade this aspect of things.
“We won’t need a cleaner!” Louise was relieved to be able to answer at least one question immediately. “It is a 3 up, 3 down house!”
“A what?” James asked.
“The whole house is six rooms!” Louise explained. “There are three bedrooms upstairs, and a lounge room, a kitchen and a fourth bedroom downstairs.”
“What about the bathrooms and toilet rooms and laundry? Don’t you count them?”
Louise thought for a minute, then answered, “I don’t think so. I think you assume that those rooms are there. Anyway, the point is that it is a small house and we will clean it ourselves. It’s a life skill.” Seeing James throw back his head and groan, she added “Don’t you want to be an independent adult who can cook and clean for himself?”
“NO!” said James, loudly.
The house they were leaving was over-large, and that was the main reason Louise had engaged a cleaner when she had returned to the workforce. It had three separate living areas and 6 bedrooms – all enormous rooms, and on two storeys. All the floors were polished wood and required constant mopping for dust and footprints; and the multiple bathrooms were put to good use and had to be cleaned regularly.
Originally, Louise had called a cleaning agency to find help. “Dolly’s Dailies” said the female voice on the other end of the line when Louise called the first agency.
“Hello,” said Lou. “I am enquiring about a cleaner. I wondered how much it cost an hour to have my house cleaned.”
“It’s $30 an hour,” answered the woman. “How many rooms?”
When Louise described the layout of the house, the woman took a moment to make her calculations before she announced “That will cost $150 a week if you have it cleaned weekly, and $180 a week if you have it done fortnightly.”
“But isn’t it just an hourly rate?”
“Yes,” said the woman cautiously, “but for a house that size –“
“But I only want the bathrooms cleaned. I can vacuum myself.”
“That will be $90 then.”
“An hour a bathroom?” Louise couldn’t believe her ears. “It only takes me 20 to 30 minutes per bathroom!”
“Our minimum charge is for three hours,” the woman informed her.
“Oh, I see,” said Louise. “Thank you.”
Louise decided to run an ad of her own in the local paper. It read: “Cleaner wanted to clean 3 bathrooms and vacuum large home, all wooden floors. $50 a week.” She figured that the agency only paid the cleaner a portion of the fee anyway; and she knew she could vacuum and clean the bathrooms in 2 hours herself, so $25 an hour seemed about right. She herself was paid $30 an hour as a tax accountant, which equated to $60,000 a year, so $25 an hour, tax free, wasn’t too bad for cleaning, Louise thought.
She got a lot of calls, mostly from people with heavy accents and limited English. Louise wondered whether she would be able to adequately communicate with someone when neither of them could speak the other’s language.
Then she got a call from a young Australian man, and Louise was surprised.
“Actually, I’m calling for my Mum,” he explained. “She asked me to call you because she had to go out but she wants the job. We live nearby, so it will be handy for her. She will call you tonight.”
Louise had to ask. “Does your mother speak English?”
The young man chuckled. “Yeah, don’t worry, she’s Australian.”
The woman who called later was Australian. “Hi, I’m Diana,” she said, and Louise could hear her smile over the phone. “My son called earlier.”
They arranged to meet and Diana came by that afternoon. She was about Louise’s age, with glossy blonde hair cut into a perky, layered bob.
“I have a couple of part-time jobs,” she explained. “But I also have an Arts degree in classical languages, so I’m probably better educated than you!”
“Oh!” said Louise. “Well, as a matter of fact –“
But Diana hadn’t finished her declaration. “I just do this because I am trying to rebuild my savings after my divorce,” she said heroically.
Louise sensed that Diana wanted her to express an interest in this situation, so she asked, “Have you been divorced long?”
“Seven years,” Diana answered. “But I’ve had to educate my two kids, so I’ve taken whatever work I can get within school hours.”
“Well, good for you!” Louise thought it best to play it safe. Diana seemed nice, but sensitive, and a bit complicated. She also looked the wrong age to have school-aged boys. But Louise was still figuring out all her new acquaintances and was prepared to take her time. “Mater artium necessitas!”
Diana looked at her suspiciously. “What?” she said.
Louise was concerned that the kids would correctly identify the move from the big rented house in Linum St to the smaller townhouse she’d bought in Laburnum St, as a downward cast of their collective fortunes. But kids are funny and they have their own perspective.
“Mum – this is awesome!” James was triumphant as he inspected the new, compact living arrangements. “Do you realise that it takes one minute to walk to the shops – and just three minutes to walk from our house to the train station now? It was a good eight minutes from the other house!” He continued his inspection of his room.
Actually, it was the formal dining room of the townhouse, but since the building pre-dated the ‘open-plan’ mandate of anything designed after 1972, this room was completely enclosed in the old style, with walls and doors. It also had a double-door ‘cavity’ which provided access to the ducted heating machine located under the stairs. However, there was enough space remaining for the installation of a closet, directly behind these doors, so it had been deemed the fourth bedroom from the outset, and claimed by James as the largest bedroom after the master.
“My bedroom has two doors – one to the entrance hall, and one to the kitchen!”
Louise smiled at his enthusiasm, remembering James’ previous spacious room and ensuite. This new room was half the size, and she loved him for being so excited.
“You should really block off one of the doors, though James,” she advised. “Then you will have more wall space.”
But James would have none of it. “No way!” he protested. “This way I have total access to the front door, and total access to the fridge – and the loo!”
Adjacent to the door from James’ room into the kitchen, another door led the way into a laundry, from which a tiny bathroom could be accessed – James’, now. Louise laughed. “Fair enough,” she said.
“And there is no yard!” James continued. “I love townhouses – I never want to live in anything but a townhouse again!”
“I thought you loved having a yard?” Louise was confused. “And actually there is a yard – there is a huge, communal yard at the end of the driveway. It has big trees and grass and everything – it’s quite nice.”
“Yes, especially since we don’t have to mow it!” James explained. “No more spending the weekend mowing and weeding and all that.”
“Mowing and weeding?” Louise was disbelieving. “When did you ever mow or weed? We always had a gardener and you know it!”
“Yeah, but the threat was always there,” insisted James.
Louise shook her head. “You are the laziest boy I ever knew.”
James laughed. “That’s right!” he agreed. “And that is why I will always live in a townhouse close to the shops and the station from now on!”
They may have only moved three suburban blocks from Linum Street to Laburnum Street, but the shift in social position was more significant. Once an accepted member of the neighbourhood and local school community, now Louise was openly shunned by people who’d previously visited her home; calling in with social invitations, or just to chat.
At first she didn’t realise it, and kept leaving telephone messages for women whom she’d regarded as friends – the mothers of her youngest son’s school buddies.
Then, one day, Delia Crowe and her husband Dan walked straight past her, studiously looking ahead, and not acknowledging Louise. It was the Open Day at the local high school which both their boys would attend next term. Louise smiled and said a bright “Hi!” but was ignored by them both. She stopped still and watched them continue walking steadily away.
Dan had assisted Jeff when he was building the Ikea kitchen. He came around every day for a week, fitting drawers and discovering that the reason they didn’t shut properly was because they’d attached the frontispiece upside down. And Delia and Louise had waited outside the primary school together with Delia’s pre-school aged daughter each afternoon for years, waiting for the bell and the torrent of school pupils that exploded out into Black’s Walk every afternoon.
These people weren’t mere acquaintances.
Louise felt hot tears prick the back of her eyes. She felt as though the wind had been knocked out of her. Once again, and in another way – a new way – Louise felt alone.
Then she remembered that the Crows were devout members of a local Christian church. Were they expressing their support for Jeff? Or were they simply demonstrating their disapproval of her decision not to follow her husband when he decided to leave?
Or could it be that in doing what she had done – gone back to work full-time; saved a deposit for a home; refused to follow her husband when he left; and then continued to raise her family as though nothing much had happened – perhaps this threatened their view of The World, and Reality, and Family Security. Were single mothers supposed to be impoverished and lonely and living in the outer suburbs, thus punished for flouting the accepted social order; not independent professionals who remained in the leafy environs of the church-going middle classes?
Perhaps it was Delia who felt annoyed that Louise had blown the cover on how impossible it was to both work full-time and raise a family, since Delia had avoided returning to work as a registered nurse, despite Dan’s urgings. Or was Dan affronted that Louise, a newcomer to the neighbourhood, whom they had taken to their collective bosom, should so wantonly eschew the values he lived by; and, after deserting her husband, continued her life fairly seamlessly. Dan worked at a job he didn’t particularly like so that his wife could stay at home. From Dan’s perspective, Louise could see that Jeff had been a good provider and a good family man – who was Louise to decide that Jeff was no longer necessary to the family?
Whatever the reason, their behaviour hurt her; and it hurt in a new place – a spot where she’d previously enjoyed the luxury of feeling whole.
“So, this is what it is like to be a single parent of three kids,” Louise thought. She didn’t find it a huge change. After all, Jeff had worked long hours and travelled a lot during their marriage. Even after he had stopped working, he had spent months away from the family, visiting his brother in the States. And it wasn’t as though the kids were babies. James was now in Year 11; Camille was in Year 5, and Peter, Year 4.
But still, there was something daunting about actually being single again. Jeff would always be there for the kids, and Louise knew that however else he might have disappointed her, he would never shirk from his financial responsibilities. But the real responsibility was Louise’s now. She had brought that on herself and now she had to face up to it.
She had to make all the decisions and she had to plan for the future. But how do you plan for a future when you don’t even know what ‘future’ you want? Louise felt abuzz with stress as she contemplated what lay ahead.
“What are you watching?” Camille settled herself beside her mother in front of the television. Louise was watching a Golden Girls dvd.
“I thought I heard Dorothy’s voice!” James came into the room and smiled at the familiar show. “I remember this from when I was a baby,” he said.
Even Peter came out to join them and they all laughed at some embarrassing comment Ma made to one of Blanche’s admirers.
When the show was over, James turned to her. “That reminds me of when I was really little, and we had that flat with the big balcony and I had a peddle car.” He was smiling as he remembered.
Louise smiled too. “Yes, weren’t they happy days?” she agreed. And she kissed her kids good night and rounded them all off to bed.
Louise tucked herself in and reached for a thick Maeve Binchy book which she had read at least 3 times previously over the past 12 years. Re-reading a Maeve Binchy book was like meeting old neighbours for coffee. There was so much that was familiar and enjoyable; there were no surprises – and if there were any parts you had forgotten, it didn’t change the outcome because you already knew the ending; not that Maeve Binchy stories really had ‘endings’. The books stopped but the story continued.
Peter came in to give his mother a final goodnight kiss. He often did that and Louise was glad, because he was entering the age when he found his mother quite frustratingly stupid, yet he still had some affection for her.
“Mum, you should read Terry Pratchett.” Peter had discovered James’ stash of his favourite and prolific writer. “You’d really like them. They aren’t just kid’s books.”
“Even if they were – that wouldn’t be a bad thing. I love kids’ books!” said Louise. “I still read a lot of my old books from when I was a kid.”
“I know, but you have never read a Terry Pratchett and I think you should. Here,” he offered her one entitled ‘The amazing Maurice and his educated rodents’. “This is a good one to begin with. Give it a go.” Peter looked at her seriously like a teacher trying to encourage a student to do a hard sum. “I bet you’ll like it.”
Louise smiled at her son. She took the book and flipped the pages. One day she would read it, but not now. It was new to her. It didn’t take her to a place where she felt safe; where she knew what would happen next; where she could predict the outcome. The book was part of all the places she had to go in the future; places she was afraid of because they might include advancing age and sickness and kids who don’t need you and married couples her own age going off on trips around Australia together because their kids have left home and as yet don’t have babies of their own who need their Nana. The unknown time that loomed ahead when the savings you had set aside for your retirement were inadequate to the task and no one in your street spoke English at home anymore and that was the only language you could speak. What would she do if she forgot her password or the computer crashed or her identity was stolen by a marauding internet raider and one day she found she no longer owned the house she had spent her working life paying off because her identity had been stolen?
Louise shook herself slightly and smiled at her young son. “Thanks Peter,” she said softly. “Thanks, darling.”
Louise worked in town, and took two trains to get to work each day. She got the 7.20 train in, and got home at 6.20 each night. The younger two kids refused point blank to go to after-school care, so walked to and from school each day. James took the train.
When he had stopped working, Jeff began cooking dinner each night. Lou had still done all the shopping and housework and washing and made the lunches. Now that Jeff was gone, she didn’t mind cooking when she got home, but she was tired a lot and the days were very long. She found herself screaming at the kids too much because she was tired, and she realised that she had to do something to change things.
She applied for a teaching job at the local Institute of TAFE. She’d done similar work for a couple of years when James was born, which was what gave her the idea. No position had been advertised, but Louise thought that might be an advantage – no competition if a job did come up and her resume was on file. Recruiting staff was a costly exercise, so she was really saving them time and money, she assured herself.
“So, this will be a real change for you!” Joe Gardiner, one of the senior educators at the Box Hill Institute was reading Louise’s resume. They sat in his 3rd floor cubicle, ignored by the other inhabitants of the open-plan office area who scurried to and fro, in varying states of mental pre-occupation or single-mindedness.
“I’ve taught in a tertiary college before,” started Louise.
“Yes, Canberra Institute of Technology – I see that. How long ago was that?” Joe smiled at her as he invited Louise to make his point.
Louise smiled back. She liked Joe. He had an old, kind, crumpled face. An honest face.
“I taught there for two and a half years, from 1989 to 1992.”
Joe chuckled. “Two and a half years, eh?” He acknowledged that she had trumped his reference to the many years since her previous teaching experience by stating the length of time she had spent teaching. “Well, it will be interesting to see how much things have changed in the intervening 15 years, then, won’t it?”
Lou raised her eyes hopefully. “Does that mean you have a job for me here?”
“Louise, Louise, Louise!” Joe lolled his head from side to side and leaned back in his chair. “Of course we have a job here for you! Do you know many university educated, fully qualified CPA’s with 25 years of professional experience we get walking into this institute asking if they can teach day-time classes in Accounting, Economics, Commercial Law, Financial Maths, and Tax?” Joe stopped reading the subjects from her resume and laughed. “We get a lot of people wanting night time work teaching one or two subjects; you know: accountants who have just started their own small firm but want a regular cash flow; or married men whose wives have recently left work to have a baby. But most of our accounting and business students want day-time classes.” He paused and smiled at Lou. “You are in a group numbering exactly one! Welcome!” He laughed again and shook her hand. “Of course,” he continued, “You won’t start till next semester; and we can’t tell you what your timetable will look like; but I think we can guarantee you a point five position at least, and possibly more.” Joe closed her resume and stood, indicating that the “interview” was over. As he ushered Lou out of his cluttered cubicle, he added, “You’ll have to do a Certificate IV in Training & Assessment, but you can do that here while you are working, and we will pay for it.”
And Louise left, smiling at her new boss, and wondering what a ‘point five position’ was.
The house was still a work in progress. It was wonderful to have had the kitchen replaced before they even moved in, but the bathrooms were badly in need of replacement. All the walls of both bathrooms and the toilet closets were floor to ceiling 2cm ivory porcelain tiles, circa 1966. 40 years later, they looked like the decaying teeth of a heavy smoker.
Louise costed out the project. It wasn’t difficult to find out how much hand basins, shower recesses and toilets cost. Then she had to add the paint, and the cost of floor coverings. The labour required a bit of imagination – how long would it take?
Julia provided the answer. “It took the team a week to do our bathroom and toilet,” she said. So Louise doubled that, then charged the labourer’s out at $100,000 per annum, which is $50 an hour, then doubled that to account for two workers. She arrived at a number that seemed sensible, and started getting bathroom renovators to give her quotes.
Of the three written quotes she got, only one was within coo-ee of her own estimate; and this one was almost exactly what she had calculated.
Within weeks, both bathrooms and toilet rooms were sparkling with new, white porcelain fixtures; freshly painted walls; and matching new linoleum.
Of course, no sooner had she had the bathrooms renovated than the dark brown artificial wood closets in the laundry room glared out at her through the connecting kitchen door…..
The builder she employed to fix the laundry and powder room was about 30 years old. He was tall and golden limbed and had thick, wavy, blonde hair. His short, short shorts were a neat fit and sat just below his slim hips, from which hung a hammer and a metallic tape measure. He had green eyes rimmed with grey lashes, and his name was…it was…
“Mark,” his hand was outstretched. “You must be Louise.” Louise looked at his hand. It was the hand of a poet, not a builder. There were no fractured cuticles or chipped nails. Louise couldn’t speak, so she gently put her hand in his and he shook it while the electric shock travelled up her arm, rivetting her to the floor.
Mark dropped her hand casually and smiled, showing perfect teeth. He looked like a Camberwell Grammar school boy.
“So,” he began, “You’d like your laundry and powder room rebuilt?”
“Yes,” said Louise.
“Have you ordered the porcelain fittings?”
“Great, we can get started, then.” He took out his mobile phone and said to Louise and he punched in a number. “The first job will be to remove all this tiled walling, and the old fittings. It’ll get pretty messy,” he warned.
“Yes,” was all Louise could think or say.
“Wanna come out for a coffee?” It was Diana calling.
“I can’t,” answered Louise.
“The builder is here,” Louise explained.
“So?” said Diana.
“Well, I need to watch him.”
“Why? Don’t you trust him?”
“No – I mean, yes, I trust him; it’s just that I want to watch him.”
“You want to watch him?” Diana was confused. “What for?”
“Come over,” said Louise. “You’ll see.”
So, Diana arrived ten minutes later and sat with Louise in the kitchen. They watched Mark, and his twin brother Leon, dismantle the powder room wall by wall.
“Wow,” said Diana.
“I know,” said Louise. They were watching the men bend and struggle with the walls; their shorts straining against their muscular thighs. Would the shorts be able to contain the force?
Mark smiled at them. “Good to see them come down, isn’t it?”
Diana and Louise stared at his hot, dust smeared face, looking like a pair of rabbits caught in the headlights.
“Stephanie’s going to England for a month when she finishes school,” James told his mother.
“Oh?” Lou was interested. Stephanie was James’ “true love”. They had been dating for six months and Stephanie, who was a year older that James, would be studying for her final exams this year. “Is this a reward for finishing school?” she asked.
“I think it is a reward for getting into medicine,” James smiled at his mother.
“What if she doesn’t get in?” Lou asked. “Will she still get the trip?”
“She’ll get in,” answered James.
Lou laughed. “Yes, she probably will. So, are her parents taking her?”
“No,” said James. “She is being sent on her own, straight after Christmas. Her father is paying for her ticket with frequent flyer miles, and there is only enough for one ticket.”
“I’m sure they can afford to pay for tickets, James. They are well off; MacRob is a government school and Steph is their only child.”
James shrugged. “I’m just telling you what they told me.”
“Where is she staying?” Louise asked. “Does she have family there?”
“No. Her mother thinks it will be a good experience for her.”
“On her own, in the U.K. in January? It will be freezing and all the tourist amenities will be closed! Who would want to go to Europe in January? I can’t believe that they would send their 18 year old daughter away, alone!”
“Well, I could always go with her,” James smiled at his mother.
Stephanie attended MacRob’, the sister-school to Melbourne High. If she hadn’t been academically capable, she might easily have gone in for modelling or something similar because she was, without doubt, a beauty of the proportion of Elizabeth Taylor in her prime. Funnily, Stephanie behaved and spoke like a much older woman; her self-assuredness and confidence belied her youth and dependent status. Louise thought her confidence was unbecoming in such a young woman. There was no fragility in her beauty and it was missed. Stephanie’s assuredness in all matters detracted from her likeability quotient. She looked like an exotic flower and spoke like a hardened cynic.
Steph was the only child of her father, who was a city solicitor with his own firm, and her mother, herself a beauty of Brazilian extraction. No expense had been spared in nurturing Stephanie’s scholastic ability, and privately Lou wondered how she would cope without all the propping up. She had tutors every afternoon of the week for each of the VCE subjects she had chosen. These subjects had been selected in light of the “mark-up” allocated to them because they were more difficult and therefore less popular. So Steph studied Latin, chemistry, biology and specialist maths in addition to the compulsory English. This was her VCE year, and if Steph got nervous, tired or upset, a car would arrive and James would be whisked off to provide support.
“What about your studies, James?” His mother once asked in the presence of Stephanie’s statuesque mother, Brihony. “You are doing VCE subjects now, too, you know.”
Brihony had turned on Lou with flashing eyes. “You would stand in the way of Stephanie’s success?” She flung her glare towards James. “Stephanie needs you, James. You can’t desert her now. You know that she would never desert you.” James looked ashamed and avoided his mother eye as he followed Brihony to her car. Lou shook her head and went inside.
They’d been living at the new address for about three months when a letter arrived from the body corporate, saying that the painting contract had been finalised and now each owner had to contribute $5,200 towards the exterior painting of the townhouses. It also declared that a meeting would be held at Number 3, the home of Julia and Jack White. Julia and Jack were, Louise discovered, the joint presidents of the owners’ association.
The meeting was on a Wednesday night so, after feeding the kids and settling the younger two at the dining table with their homework, Louise walked across the driveway and down two houses to arrive at the door of Number 3.
The door was ajar, but Lou knocked anyway. “Come in!” called a voice, so she entered the house.
Each townhouse had exactly the same floorplan. The only difference was that instead of having the driveway behind the townhouse, the ten units along the pipestem driveway had theirs beside the house. Consequently, their French windows opened onto the yard at the rear of the townhouse, where a large deck provided the private outdoor area Louise’s own townhouse enjoyed in her courtyard.
This had the effect of enlarging the lounge room. The owners of Number 3 had painted this room a dramatic burgundy, and the walls were adorned with Asian wood carvings and enormous paintings of tropical Asian scenes.
“Wow!” Lou could not have been more surprised by the difference in the feel of this room to her own living area in Number 12, which was a uniform white.
“Hello,” a tall, smiling woman greeted her. “I’m Julia – you must be Louise.”
“Yes, hello,” Louise smiled her response. “I love this room.”
“Do you like it?” Julia asked unnecessarily. “We are happy with it.”
At that moment, the tall, bald man she had seen previously entered the room from the deck. “So!” he exclaimed. “We meet at last!” He grinned a greeting to Louise. They exchanged names.
“Look, the meeting’s been cancelled due to lack of interest,” explained Jack.
“And no one wants to pay up for the painting until they absolutely have to,” added Julia.
Jack laughed and continued. “We would have called you, but we thought this was probably a good opportunity to get to know you, so let’s have dinner instead.”
“What nice people!” Louise thought.
Louise had lived in Melbourne for two years, and in that time had developed an impression of the city and its people. They had moved to Melbourne from Sydney, but were not originally from that sunniest of cities. After three years in Sydney, though, they must have become “Sydney-fied” because it was a bit of a culture shock when they got to Melbourne.
For one thing, a far greater proportion of the population had dark hair and eyes. Since Lou had been born in Brisbane, worked in Canberra and moved to Sydney after marrying and only arrived in Melbourne a few years ago, this was a trend she had noticed. As she moved – slid – down the east coast of Australia, the average colouring went from being generally fair-skinned and blue-eyed in Brisbane, to olive-skinned and brown eyed in Melbourne, with the accompanying gradations along the way.
It should have been the opposite. Normally, equatorial people had the darker colouring to cope with the extended exposure to sunlight. The Aborigines had the right colouring for the climate and accurately reflected racial evolution in response to climate. It was just another piece of evidence that Australia was a patchwork of international immigrants who ignored their genetic manifestations in order to follow their intellectual beliefs: their dreams.
Whatever the reason, this darker countenance was almost a reflection of the overcast skies. And Melbournians didn’t smile unnecessarily. They did smile, of course, but only for a reason. A smile was not the starting point on a Melbourne face.
As if to nail down the point, it seemed that everyone wore black. But Louise didn’t see new black fabrics in funky styles; just tired, pilled, shapeless black pants and flat, comfortable black loafers. During the winter, this ensemble was worn under a shapeless, much-worn, black coat. In the summer, the only variation was that they lost the black coat, while the black top worn underneath now had short sleeves.
Black was “rigueur du jour” in Melbourne, and soon Louise discovered why.
“There is absolutely nothing in the shops here other than black clothes! No wonder the poor old Melbournians all wear black! It is either that or go naked!” she complained.
It was true. Every boutique and department store had racks and racks of gorgeous styles of various trousers, skirts, jumpers and jackets – all in black. Shoes and bags were on offer in just one colour, too. Black.
The accountant in Louise understood the rationale behind this. For manufacturers to stock just one colour was cost effective; and for stores to order in a single colour saved both time and confusion. It was for a similar reason that the Chinese had to wear Moa Tse Tung style outfits during the communist regime. Economy.
But the woman in her baulked at buying black on every occasion. She determined to wear floral dresses in as many rosy tints as she could find, even if she had to go interstate to buy them. Even if she had to make them herself!
So, she was not surprised to see Julia wearing a pantsuit in basic black. However, she also wore a lovely aqua scarf draped over her shoulders, and a heavy, silver pendant with matching amulet. Jack wore jeans and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt in blue and white. And Julia’s broad, toothy smile made Louise suspect that, like her, Julia was not a Melbourne native.
“So, how long have you been in this house?” Lou asked, accepting the glass of white wine Jack had poured her.
Julia looked at her husband. “Has it been three years yet?’ she asked him.
“Almost,” Jack agreed. “We’ve only been married for 5 years,” he added. Since they were both old enough to have been married for 25 years, Louise awaited an explanation.
“We met in Vietnam,” said Julia. “Jack was on a business trip and I had been working there for a couple of years, managing the Hanoi Hilton. We came to Melbourne because Jack’s kids are all here, so we bought a big family home in Belgrave.”
“I’m not from Melbourne,” explained Louise, “but I do know that we live on the Belgrave Line, so I’m guessing it is further out.”
Jack laughed. “Anywhere that is at the end of the line is by definition further out!”
“It was taking us hours to get to work and Kathy, Jack’s ex-wife, lives in Camberwell, and the kids go to Camberwell High. It took them ages to commute to school when they spent time with us. We bought the place as a family home but in the end no one wanted to go there unless they were staying for a week,” Julia explained.
“Which would have been fine with us, but the kids were pretty linked–in to their school, so we bit the bullet and sold up and moved here,” Jack added.
Julia nodded. “But this is too small.”
“It’s fine!” exclaimed Jack. “And look at all the new friends we have!” He indicated Louise.
Louise smiled back. This couple were the friendliest, most embracing people she had met since moving to Melbourne. “If I only get to make friends with one couple – I’m glad I met these people now, when I am more alone than I’ve ever been,” she thought.
“And do you have any kids of your own Julia?” The subject of children was on the table, so Louise didn’t feel that she was delving into personal territory.
“No.” Julia looked at her husband. “I would have had one with Jack, but he already had four, and if I then had another child we would lose my income for a while, so we decided against it.”
“Kathy works too, so we really need two mothers,” Jack said, smiling at his wife.
“Every family with two working parents needs another mother!” Louise agreed. “So step-parenting is okay?” she asked Julia. “Some people find it extremely tough.”
“Yes,” agreed Julia, “and I would be one of those people. But parenting of any sort is tough.”
“Sure, but parents have natural authority; and, even then, it is tricky.”
“That’s the problem for us all then!” said Julia. “My main problem is with Jack’s eldest daughter, Laura.” Julia waited till Jack had left the room to adjust the barbeque outside, then added, “She is a master manipulator and guess who she has in her sights?”
“You?” Lou laughed her commiserations.
“Oh, yes!” Julia stopped speaking when Jack reappeared.
“So,” said Jack, “has my wife filled you in on the powder puff power struggle?” He glanced from one woman to the other and they all laughed. “Dinner’s nearly ready, so let’s go outside.”
They moved out to the deck beside the barbeque and settled down to eat at the wooden table.
“So,” Louise was interested. “Are you both originally from Melbourne?” Perhaps Julia had become friendlier than most of her Melbournian peers after living overseas for a few years.
“I’m not,” answered Julia. “I grew up on a cattle station in Queensland, and then moved to Brisbane to work and study. Jack is, though.”
“I’m originally from Brizzy, too!” said Louise. “But I’ve lived in lots of other places in between leaving Brisbane and coming here.”
“Oh?” said Jack. “Where were you before here?”
“Sydney,” said Louise.
“Ah!” Jack laughed. “The enemy!”
Louise laughed too. “I know – Melbourne people are very sensitive about Sydney. I think they feel competitive towards their older sibling!”
“It’s a two-way competition,” said Jack.
“No – it really isn’t!” Louise contradicted him. “I lived in Sydney for almost 4 years and I never once heard a negative comment from a Sydney-sider about Melbourne! Yet whenever Sydney comes up in Melbourne, Melbournians rush to say that Melbourne is better than Sydney!” Louise sipped her wine, and continued. “I think Sydney people are so innately certain that they live in the best city on Earth that they can be delighted by another city without feeling that they are slighting their own.”
Jack listened, and poured more wine into everyone’s glass. “But Sydney just pisses everyone off,” he laughed.
“What?” Julia was disbelieving.
“Oh, you know, all the great weather; and all the convict settlement crap.”
“Jack!” His wife was indignant. “It’s historic fact – not crap!” She laughed and shook her head. “Inter-city rivalry is one thing, but you can’t rewrite history just to pump up Melbourne.”
“It’s just ridiculous that Sydney is always credited with being the birthplace of Australia,” Jack refused to relent.
“Oh, do you mean the 17th century landing of Dirk Hartog in New Holland?” asked Louise.
“No.” Jack was seriously interested in his topic. “I mean that Melbourne is the real birthplace of the independent nation of the Australia that we now live in.”
“What do you mean?” Louise was confused. “Do you refer to the inimitable contribution of ‘Neighbours’?”
“No; – I refer to the gold rush of the 1860’s in Victoria, which saw our pathetic post-convict settlement population increase tenfold. And they didn’t move to Sydney – they all moved straight to the Victorian gold fields around Ballarat.
“Did you never wonder why Australia became a Federation in 1901? After over a century as a colony? It was because of the gold rush! Money! Australia would still be Britain’s off-shore remand centre were it not for the Victorian gold-rush. The gold rush brought us our ‘critical mass’ of population; it brought us more money in the shortest period of time that Australia had ever experienced – and consequently, it brought us tax revenue in various forms and we could actually commence ‘nation building’.
“Is this all from that book?” Julia wondered.
“Not all, but a lot of it is in it.” Jack leaned over and extracted a thick book from the shelf. “You have to read this,” he offered it to Louise. It was Roland Perry’s ‘Sir John Monash’.
“Thanks,” said Louise. “I will. I love biographies.”
“You will love this book,” said Jack. “And it will give you a better understanding of Melbourne’s place in Australia – historically and now.
Louise flipped through the pages and started to read.
“Not now!” Jack tried to take the book from her, but Louise grabbed it away just in time. “It’s Friday night – time for drinky discussion, not for reading.”
“Oh, alright,” Louise put the book into her bag. “Well, at least I know one true Melbournian: you! And – married to a Queenslander!” she smiled at Julia. “That shows good taste! Actually, you don’t meet all that many banana benders who have moved out of the sunshine state permanently.”
“True,” Julia agreed. “But that is generally true of all Australians, I think. People gravitate back to their home states eventually.”
“They need the free babysitting from the grandparents!” Jack chuckled.
“Probably!” agreed Julia. “Most of the people who move here permanently come from overseas.”
“Melbourne is definitely the most multi-cultural city I’ve ever lived in,” said Lou. “And aren’t we lucky to be so close to Box Hill – our own suburban Chinatown! I may never cook again!”
“Oh, you have to cook!” exclaimed Jack in mock horror. “Now that you have the best courtyard in the neighbourhood – we are expecting to be invited over to al fresco dinner parties all summer long.”
“But it’s autumn!” insisted Louise.
“That’s fine,” Jack was not going to be rebuked. “We aren’t going anywhere. We’ll still be here next summer.”
The builder who was contracted to oversee the painting and replacement of rotted wood looked like Billy Ray Cyrus back in 1992 when he had that achy breaky heart. He introduced himself to Lou one Saturday morning when he was doing his door-to-door inspection of each property to ascertain what needed to be done.
“I’m John,” he said. “We will replace any of the window jambs that need it,” he told her, “before we do anything else. So if you see us working more on one place than another – that’s why.”
“Oh, OK,” said Lou, returning his smile. “Thanks for explaining that.”
“Well, you get used to dealing with people in body corporates,” looked over his shoulder and down the driveway. “We do a lot of maintenance on places like this, because they attract the sort of people who want someone else to do the maintenance.”
“I suppose they would,” Lou agreed.
“And single women usually prefer a townhouse to a big house.” He waited for Louise to comment, and she obliged him with another smile.
“Yes, we do,” she agreed.
He smiled back. “So, are you going to be home during the week?”
“Oh my god!” thought Louise. “This is like one of those male fantasies where the workman visits the bored housewife!” She laughed out loud before she could stop herself.
“No, but I only work in Box Hill. I can be here in 5 minutes if you need me for any reason.”
“Ah,” John smiled, success written plainly on his face. “Then I had better get your mobile number!”
Lou laughed again. “Yes, you had!” And she recited it and watched as he put it into his phone.
Camille and Peter attended the local primary school and consequently knew all the kids in the neighbourhood. The parent/teacher interviews were being held and Louise had been assigned appointment times with each teacher, straight after one another.
Peter, who was in Year 4, had Mrs Henderson. She was an intelligent, mature, kind-but-firm woman who had no favourites and liked her students.
“Peter is very popular,” she began.
“I know,” said Lou. “He should start his own religion one day.”
Mrs Henderson laughed. “He certainly knows how to work a crowd,” she said.
“And he is clever—”
“And very polite. Peter has lovely manners.” Mrs Henderson closed her book and smiled at Louise. “Unless you want to hear more compliments for you son, we have nothing to discuss.”
Louise returned Mrs Henderson’s smiled farewell and made her way to Camille’s classroom, to see her teacher, Mrs Daly.
Camille struggled at school. At first Louise had helped Camille go over her lessons every afternoon, thinking that perhaps the moves from state to state had interrupted some fundamental learning process and that perhaps Camille needed to build her classroom confidence. In Year 1, the school had informed her that Camille had “literacy problems” and that the department of education was sending a specialist reading teacher to help Camille twice a week for 30 minutes.
Despite this, Camille continued to fail in every subject. She was branded as “slow” and pretty soon no other child in her class would befriend her.
Louise and Jeff employed tutors to sit with Camille after school three days a week, doing homework and re-doing classwork. Camille was already exhausted after school and she hated these lessons. Louise tried to get young, beautiful teenage girls, whom Camille might look up to, and this made the lessons more bearable, but nothing seemed to help her achieve better results.
Mrs Daly smiled nervously at Louise. “Hello Mrs Clark,” she began. “How are you?”
Lou smiled and nodded and waited.
Mrs Daly sighed and continued, looking at her records book. “Well, I’m afraid Camille is not achieving the standard we require for her year level.”
“I know,” said Louise.
“She might benefit from repeating a year.”
“I know,” agreed Lou. “But if she repeats a year, she will be in the same class as her younger brother and he is really clever.”
“Oh!” Clearly Mrs Daly had not known that this was the situation. “That’s does make it very difficult.”
“Yes, very difficult sums it up. Camille is between two brothers, both of whom do brilliantly at school. It is really hard for her.”
“Perhaps some extra tutoring?”
“We have had professional tutors for her for the past two years.”
“I see.” Mrs Daly had nothing more to say.
“But thanks, Mrs Daly,” Lou said in a resigned tone.
“She’s a wonderful class member,” said Mrs Daly brightly, determined to lift the mood.
“Yes, I’m sure she sits quietly and never speaks to anyone.”
“She’s very well behaved.”
“Camille has no friends,” explained Louise, “so talking in class is not an option for her.”
Louise left the classroom building and made her way to the oval where the kids were waiting for their parents. Peter came rushing up to her.
“Mum, can I go back to Braden’s house? We are going to see his new Playstation. I’ll be home before five.”
“Sure thing,” said Lou. “Hey – did you ask Braden’s mother?” Braden was the eldest of four kids and Louise wondered if his mother, Deb, new about Braden’s invitation.
But she was standing nearby and had overheard them. “No, it’s fine Louise. I’ll send Peter home after an hour.”
“OK, thanks Deb,” Louise waved to her.
Camille was sitting on a step at the edge of the oval, playing with a Tamagotchi. She was engrossed and didn’t see her mother approach.
Louise looked at her 10 year old daughter with a heavy heart. Camille was petite, with long blonde hair and clear blue eyes. She had peaches-and-cream skin and was a gentle, shy child. Soon she would need braces to fix her overcrowded teeth. For the moment, Camille had an expander in her upper jaw and this was both painful and effective as the first step in fixing her orthodontic problems. Camille spoke with a lisp which sometimes made it difficult to understand what she was saying, and Louise hoped that the expander and braces would make her mouth larger and the lisp less noticeable.
It was hard on Camille that both her brothers and her parents were academically accomplished and did not find learning challenging, while she struggled with everything. Louise thought that even if Camille was below average in intelligence, she was nonetheless a valuable and good person who would have a worthwhile life and contribute to society happily. School was going to be difficult and it was especially hard to overcome the social ostracism that accompanied low marks. More than anything, Louise could see that developing Camille’s confidence was the key to her enjoying her school years.
Unfortunately she did not enjoy sport, and ran away from any projectile aimed at her – like a ball, as they had discovered when Louise had enrolled Camille in the beginner’s netball league: ‘Netta’. But she was artistic and Lou thought that perhaps this was something she might encourage Camille to pursue outside of school.
Camille finally saw her mother, and got up. “Peter is going to Braden’s, did he tell you?”
“Yes, he did.” That was so like Camille – she mothered her brothers and thought about their welfare.
“So,” she said with a shy smile, looking at her mother from under her fringe. “What did they say?”
“Oh, the usual,” Louise didn’t patronise her daughter. “You are getting straight D’s.”
“Sorry,” said Camille.
“That’s OK, Camille, don’t worry,” Lou gave her daughter a hug as walked home. “Not everyone has to be a genius, and we have enough smart alecks in our house anyway! I know you work hard and do your best and that is all you have to do.”
Camille sighed and trudged along beside her mother. “I don’t know how everyone else does it, Mum,” she said. “They are so quick – you should see Pomodi. She argues with the teacher – and sometimes she is right and the teacher is wrong!”
“Wow, I’ll bet the teacher loves that,” laughed Louise.
Camille giggled, then became serious again. “I just wish I could do everything as quickly as the other kids. Sometimes I think that because I have a lisp, people think I am a baby because I sound babyish. So, in the end I say nothing. Then no one can criticise me. I always get D’s no matter what, so why bother?”
Louise looked at her daughter. That was a fairly complex thought for a ten year old to express. Then Lou realised that she had never thought of Camille as being of low intelligence. She had accepted that her daughter struggled at school, but she had never in her heart believed that Camille was not as smart as anyone else in the family.
Louise thought about that a bit more. In fact, Camille’s family were quite an intelligent group of individuals. So really, if Camille was slow, it should have been apparent to everyone ages ago, just by the comparison provided by her brothers and parents. But that had not happened. They were used to her lisp and understood her easily. Now she was discussing abstract thoughts about a problem and intellectualising her chosen response to it. Would a slow child be able to do that?
“Camille, would you mind if we saw a doctor and tried to figure out why you have problems at school?”
“Would I have to have a needle?”
Lou laughed. “No – they would just examine you and talk to you.”
“I think we should get your ears and eyes tested.”
“But we have done that already!”
“I know, but it might be time to do it again.”
“I suppose,” agreed Camille.
It was Steph who provided the first clue. The family and Stephanie were having Yum Cha at Foo Long restaurant in Box Hill, to celebrate James’ birthday. She took out a pair of spectacles to read the menu.
Louise looked up. “I didn’t know you wore glasses, Steph,” she said. “Are you short sighted or long sighted?
“Neither,” said Stephanie. “I have dyslexia.”
Louise was surprised. “Dyslexia?” she said. “Both my brothers are dyslexic. I thought only boys could have that.”
Stephanie shook her head. “No, it occurs equally in both genders,” she explained. “Absolutely fifty-fifty.” Stephanie resumed reading the menu, but added “And it runs in families, so there is an hereditary element to it.”
“Is that right?”
“Yes.” Steph put down her menu to pour herself some Jasmine tea. “But it is okay really, because I get extra time in all my exams since dyslexia is a recognised learning disability.” She sipped her tea and took up the menu again.
“Well, well, well,” thought Louise.
And so it was that Camille’s dyslexia was “discovered” and remedied – by a pair of Dolce & Gobana purple tinted spectacles. The diagnostic interview had been a revelation to Louise – and to Camille.
The dyslexic diagnostician, Marion, showed Camille a sheet of white paper which was covered in German words, typed in black.
“I know you can’t read this; but I want you to tell me what you see,” she said.
Camille answered comfortably. “I see all the vines.”
Marion nodded. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” said Camille. “The words are shaking but the vines are above the page.”
Louise was nonplussed. Vines? Words shaking? What?
But Marion nodded knowingly. She spoke to Louise, whom she could see was becoming quite confused. “Don’t be concerned, Mrs Clark. This is not at all unusual – in fact, this is exactly why we ask the person to look at a page of black writing on white paper in another language – so that they won’t even try to read it. But we have many other diagnostic tests to perform, so let’s get on with it.” She started to rearrange her paperwork, and paused to speak again. “You know, of course, that this is very good news for Camille.”
“Why would you say that?” asked Louise.
“Because,” she explained, “dyslexics are not mentally challenged. They are intelligent people who suffer from a reading disability. And we can address and often remedy that.”
“Oh,” said Louise. “Thank God!”
When the test was over, it had been identified that Camille required glasses of a purplish-grey hue and she would be able to read black print on white paper. “There are definite clues to dyslexia,” Marion explained. “Because the black words on white paper appear blurry or ‘shaking’ as Camille described them, often the dyslexic reader will attempt to make the word sit still by placing his or her finger under it as they try to read.”
“But,” protested Louise, “how can that be? Camille has had literacy specialists from the Department of Education assisting her weekly for 4 years. Not just here, in Sydney too! How can they have missed this, if it is as simple a clue as putting her finger under words – something she has always done?”
Marion shook her head. “You wonder, don’t you?”
Within one term, Camille’s marks had risen from outright D’s and E’s to straight B’s. She walked tall and smiled at her peers. “I’m so glad I’m not stupid, Mum,” she said, as they read her school report with joy.
Louise smiled. “You were never the stupid one, darling,” was all Louise would allow herself to say.
“46!” Louise exclaimed in horror as she accepted a glass of her favourite pink champagne from Julia. “I’m going to be 46!”
It had become a regular thing. At 7pm on Friday night, Jack or Julia would call in at Louise’s house to invite her over for a drink. This always involved so many substantial and delicious savouries that it may as well have been an invitation to dinner.
Jack and Julia had quickly become Louise’s best friends. Their friendship was like a soft, warm blanket and when she was with them she felt safe and happy. At home, she ran the house and made every decision. At Julia and Jack’s place, she was a welcome guest, privy to whatever was happening in their lives.
Louise knew that she would not have managed the terrifying process of building her new life as a single, middle aged woman and mother without this wonderful couple who had really become her extended family.
Jack’s youngest daughter was Camille’s age and if she was spending the weekend with her father, Camille would accompany Lou. Jack’s eldest daughter, Laura, was James’ age, so even he would come from time to time. But James didn’t get along with Laura’s boyfriend, Rick, so usually James and Peter stayed at home.
“Well, then, there is only one thing to do!” Jack looked excited. “You’ll have to throw a party!”
“That’s what I thought,” replied Louise.
“Who will you invite?” Julia asked.
Louise wracked her brain. Who would she invite? That was an issue. She hadn’t lived in town long enough to have a collection of friends to call upon; and those she had made were “married friends” who couldn’t decide whose friend they were now.
“Well, both of you, for a start. And Diana. And Katherine from work.”
“What about men?” asked Julia. “Do you know any guys?”
“No, no one I wasn’t married to,” joked Lou. “I’ll have to work on that. After all, I can’t have you and Louis being the only men there!”
“We won’t mind,” insisted Jack.
“Besides, I’ve got to start behaving like a single person again. Making new friends is part of my survival strategy.
Louise parked her car underneath building 8 of the Box Hill Institute campus and made her way to the lift. It was the week before classes were scheduled to begin and despite having received a phone call from Sharon, the Business Programs office manager, Louise had had no contact with her subject co-ordinator, Zoe.
“Well,” Lou thought, “I suppose I’d better take the initiative here – isn’t that what they always ask you about in interviews?” So she’d called Sharon and announced her plan to come in.
“Do you have an appointment with anyone?” Sharon had asked.
“No,” Louise answered. “But I thought I’d like to pick up the textbooks and perhaps see my desk.”
“Your desk.” Pause. “Right. I’d better put you in to see Paul.”
“He’s the program manager. He can fix you up with a desk.” Sharon sounded tired but helpful.
“See you when you get here.”
As she walked through the building from the car park, Lou observed the students she passed. “Late enrollees,” she thought to herself. They were dressed in a way she rarely saw in such a large group. It was tantamount to being a uniform.
For the girls, Lou doubted it possible to show any more bosom or bottom in public and in a daytime environment – a work environment, for some at least. Louise wondered how the male teachers stayed focussed with so much young and abundant cleavage – front and rear – on display.
The boys, on the other hand, dressed pretty much as her brother had dressed when he went off to technical college in the late 70’s: well-worn blue denim Levi’s; a fitted T shirt displaying some esoteric artwork; some boys even sported a packet of Marlborough Red, an outline of which could be seen in the short sleeve of the T shirt! The shoes were different, though. In the 70’s, the guys had worn desert boots. Now they wore runners, either Nike or Adidas.
The only things both genders had in common were tattoos, piercings, and outrageous haircuts.
Louise couldn’t wait to go home and tell James about it. He was at Melbourne uni and she had seen his friends – a dull crowd by comparison. Why such an enormous difference between the uni set and the TAFE students? They were the same age, after all. It seemed inexplicable.
She arrived at the door to Business Programs and pressed the buzzer. Sharon let her in and waved her through to the central area.
“Oh, hi,” a nice looking man of about 40 came up to her. “You must be the new accounting teacher,” he smiled. “I’m Barry.”
“Hi, yes, I must be,” Louise smiled back.
“Look,” Barry led her towards a row of desks, “if I was you, I’d grab a desk as soon as I could.” He looked around, pointing out names which had been written on pieces of paper and stuck onto the head-height shelf on the wall behind each computer terminal. “Let’s see, we have Linda here; Phil here; aha! Here is a spot!” And he triumphantly led Louise to a computer terminal and chair.
“Thanks, Barry.” Louise hoped he wasn’t in a hurry and indeed he seemed happy to chat.
“So,” he said, “where were you before here?”
“I worked as an accountant with a firm on King St.”
“Oh!” Clearly Barry hadn’t expected that.
“What about you?” Louise asked, wondering what else she might have been doing prior to this and hoping Barry’s answer would give her some insights.
“Oh, this, mostly. I worked in industry a few years ago, but I’ve been teaching here for the past five years.”
“Oh,” Louise was no more enlightened than previously by this disclosure. “Which industry?”
“You said you ‘worked in industry’ and I was wondering which industry?” Louise asked.
“Oh, no, I mean I worked as an accountant. I was a company accountant.”
“Yes, they don’t know how lucky they are to have real, live accountants working here for this pittance. We could be earning double this amount in industry.” Barry shook his head at the injustice.
He was a nice looking man. He could stand to lose 10 kilos Louise thought critically, but he was attractive in a casual, clean-cut way.
“I think it is pretty good money, actually,” Louise said. “And we don’t have to do a Master’s in Education to teach here – which you need to teach in a high school. Too expensive – I’ve spent my education dollar I’m afraid. Now I’m saving up to pay my kids’ HECS!”
“HELP,” said Barry. Seeing Louise uncomprehending look, he explained. “It isn’t called HECS anymore. It’s now called HELP.”
“Oh, thanks, good to know!” said Louise.
Barry laughed. “So, you really think the money is OK?”
“Yes, I do!” Lou returned his smile. “A full time teacher here gets over $70,000 a year for 20 hours of teaching a week, and all the school holidays off. It’s unbeatable!”
“But you could still earn a lot more in industry,” Barry insisted.
Louise frowned. Why did Barry keep saying ‘in industry’ like that? Accounting was a profession, not an industry! “I don’t know about ‘industry’,” she said, “but I’ve been working as a CPA tax accountant for quite a few years and in order to earn that sort of money I’ve had to work from 8 till 6 five days a week, with only 4 weeks leave. I often had to bring work home and never got paid overtime.”
“Really?” Barry was surprised.
“Really!” Louise assured him. “And I have a specialty – as well as tax, I was auditing self-managed super funds. The only way a CPA earns more than that is to become an accountant in a large company and work your way up the corporate ladder into a management role, or become a partner of a public accounting firm, and who wants to do that?”
Barry blinked. “Well, I was earning much more than what I earn here.”
“Why did you leave?”
“The hours. I need to be there for my daughter. I’m a single father.”
“Oh!” Louise was surprised. Single working mothers were a dime a dozen, and had been for 20 years. But single working fathers? Still a rarity.
“Where is your wife?” Louise thought that since he raised the subject, he must want to discuss it. The only situation in which she could imagine a nice man like Barry becoming a single working father was if his wife had died. He didn’t look the type to have married a drug addict or an incompetent; and the fact that he described himself as a ‘single father’ indicated that he had custody of his child.
“Oh, she lives nearby, with her new husband,” Barry explained. “Her mother and sister live near us, too.”
“So how come you have custody?”
“Oh! I just thought, when you said ‘single father, that you had full responsibility for her.”
“No, just every other weekend.”
Louise knew that there was no point in pursuing the conversation. Barry had one child; he only had her on alternate weekends; and he had had to reduce his workload to cope. Wow. They definitely had nothing in common.
But she couldn’t help liking him despite all this. Barry was nice. There was something refreshingly wholesome about him. So what if he wasn’t a hero? Who said he had to be?
“Well, I’ll bet that keeps you busy,” she said.
“It sure does!” Barry’s good humour was irrepressible. “Look,” he fished around in his pocket and produced a mobile phone. “Give me your number and I’ll see what I can do about rounding up some teaching resources for you. You won’t get any help from anyone around here.”
“Teaching resources?” Lou didn’t understand.
“Yeah, you know – online solutions manuals, example test dvds for each subject – that sort of thing.”
“That would be wonderful, Barry. Thank you.” Lou’s gratitude was genuine.
“We have to look after each other in this place,” said Barry. “Catchya later!”
Louise’s first class was the Advanced Diploma in Accounting. This was the final semester of a two-year program, at the end of which the students could apply for admission to the degree. The subject was cost accounting. There were 22 students, 10 of which were international students for whom English was a new, second language; two hearing impaired students; and a girl whose psychological evaluation had been included in Louise’s roll.
She entered the room and smiled nervously at the students. The international students had grouped themselves at the front, and although no one returned Louise’s smile, they looked attentive. One student rose and approached Louise. The remaining 10 did not acknowledge the teacher’s arrival at all.
“I’m Jo,” said the girl. She had short, discoloured (or was that coloured?) hair; a tattoo on her forearm where it could be displayed all year round; a ring in her eyebrow and a stud in her nose; and she wore army fatigues and combat boots. Louise recognised the outfit as the modern homosexual woman’s protest against feminine fashion and socio-sexual stereotypes and stood up straight so that her cameo brooch became her armour.
Being only 160 cms tall, though, it didn’t really work out because the student, Jo, was tall and strongly built.
“I’m schizophrenic,” she declared, “and I may miss some classes.”
“Yes,” Louise retrieved the paperwork she had been given on Jo. “I see that you have a recognised learning disability. I will ensure that you are given extra time in the exams and a separate room.”
Jo blinked. “I may not be able to do all the work on time.”
“Oh, well, what should we do about that?” Louise was puzzled.
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Louise tried to explain. “The set work is to prepare you for the exam. If you don’t do the work, you won’t be able to do the exam, unless you are repeating the subject and you already know it all.”
“The other teacher just gave me the answers.”
“Oh!” Louise shook her head. “I won’t be doing that.”
“Why not?” Jo was no longer weakened by her disability. Now she was confronting.
“Because the publisher particularly asks that we not distribute the answers to students; and because at work, there are no set answers – only problems.” Louise looked at the girl and saw a frightened bully – frightened by the prospect of work; bullying because that was how she conducted her passage through life. She sighed.
“Let’s just get to know the topic a little bit first, Jo, and sort out our issues as they arise.”
“I’ll have to speak to the course co-ordinator,” she said sulkily.
“Me, too,” agreed Louise.
Jo sat down, turned to the class and announced “She doesn’t give out the answers.”
The whole class instantly became silent. Louise smiled at them again. “Hello,” she started. “Welcome to –“
“What do you mean, you don’t give out the answers?” This was shouted by a tall 20 year old youth sitting in the back row. Even the international students were grumbling to themselves now.
“Well, there are no answers at the jobs you’ll be doing. But we are going to learn the methods to solve-“
Louise was interrupted by a very distressed looking young woman from the front row. “We alway got the answer,” she explained, looking to her neighbour, who nodded in agreement. Her English was pretty good but she spoke with a heavy accent. “That how we learn.”
“I won’t be giving out the answers. However, we will work through many examples in class and you will then have solutions to the problems we have done. It’s the same thing.”
“What if we miss a class?” It was one of the tall, loud young men from the back row.
“Well, I suppose you do what students have done for centuries when they miss a class. They ask one of their friends for their notes and copy them.” This resulted in groans and looks of dismay. The class was not starting out as Louise had envisaged.
She decided to change tack. “I’ll put the unit outline here,” she made a pile on a desk at the front of the class. “You will be able to see which chapter we are studying each week, and which problems we will be doing.” The students filed up and collected these papers. Finally they sat back down.
Louise tried to speak with authority and compassion. “They are probably scared,” she thought.
“The fact that you are all here, in the fourth and final semester of your diploma, means that you have already passed the preceding three subjects and know your way around a set of financial statements. What we will be learning about this semester is the proper compilation of a complete set of behind-the-statements accounts, which allow manufacturers and retailers to measure their profit for both management and taxation purposes.” She paused and looked at the class. No comment. “Good,” thought Louise.
“We are going to measure the cost of goods sold, also known as COGS.” Louise wrote on the board. “There are basically two ways to measure COGS: First, the direct method, and secondly, the absorption costing method.” Louise turned to write on the board, and when she turned around she saw that almost all her students were peering into their phones.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
Jo answered. “We are trying to find the answers on the internet.”
Louise was so surprised she didn’t know what to say. Jo continued.
“If you won’t give them to us, how else are we going to get them?”
“Found them!” A female student had been peering over the shoulder of her boyfriend, who had a better phone than she had, announced his victory. The young man looked up smiling. “Don’t worry,” he said to the class, “I’ll email it to you.”
Louise waved her hand at the class to get their attention. “Whatever he has just found on the internet is not the answers to the problems in this textbook.” The class quietened and looked at her. Louise continued. “In order to force us to buy new books each year, the publisher brings out a new edition and changes the problems and the answers.” Louise had their attention. “Besides, the answers are often wrong.”
It seemed that the students knew that this was the case, since a few of them shrugged and nodded to one another.
Louise frowned. “If all you want is the answers, why do you come to this class? There are no marks for attendance.”
One of the international students answered her. “We can’t get our PR if we don’t come to class,” she explained politely. “We have to attend at least 90% of the classes.”
“PR?” Louise asked, confused.
“Permanent residency,” explained the girl.
“Oh. I see.” But Louise still didn’t see.
The student took pity on her and, sensing her ignorance, tried to explain more fully. “We have already done accounting in our country, but now we have to do again, and be student here for some time so we can stay.”
Louise was beginning to get the picture. “I see.” Now she did. “So, you just want me to mark your names off the roll at the beginning of each class, and give you the answers sheets to all the questions, so you can go away and do the problems.”
“Yes!” said about 20 students happily. At last she understood!
“I can’t do that,” Louise shook her head.
“Then we will have to change into another class,” one of the back-row boys stood up and noisily collected his things to leave. “That’s how all the other teachers do it.”
A loud discussion ensued, from which Louise discerned phrased such as “This is the only time I can come to this class” and “Who does she think she is?”
Louise held up her hand in a “stop” sign. “Look, let’s sort this out. I’ll go and get Zoe.”
Zoe was her subject co-ordinator and Louise knew that she taught economics. The students looked relieved – they clearly had some regard for Zoe, and Louise thought she may have done something right at last.
“Wait here,” she commanded.
Louise found Zoe in the staff room. “Zoe, can I speak to you?” she asked.
Zoe frowned up at her. “Aren’t you supposed to be teaching cost accounting?” she asked, in a none too friendly tone.
“Yes, I am – I mean I am teaching them. There seems to be some misunderstanding though.”
Zoe looked at her crossly. “What is it?”
“All the students want is that I mark them off the roll and hand them the answers. They don’t want to stay and learn about cost accounting in the classroom.”
Zoe was surprised. “Oh, don’t they?” She got up from her chair. “What room are you in?”
“333, just next door.”
Zoe turned off her computer. “Wait here,” she said. “Give me 5 minutes with them.”
“Thanks,” said Louise with relief.
Five minutes later, Zoe was back. “You can go back now,” she said. “They are a difficult class that one,” she said. “We will be glad when they graduate at the end of the semester. No one else would take them again – that’s why we had to get you.”
“Oh,” said Louise.
“Do you think you could give them the answers?” Zoe asked.
Louise looked at her, thinking she must be joking but could see that Zoe was serious.
“No, Zoe, I cannot give them the answers. That is my whole lesson!”
Zoe shrugged. “Well, here’s some advice. Keep a roll of every class. I don’t just mean who you see during the time. Each class is 3 hours with two sets of ten minute break. If they arrive or come back late, make a note. If they leave early, make a note. It isn’t hard to get to 10% if you do that. It’s all you’ve got. And, if I was you, I wouldn’t allow them to use their phones as calculators in tests because they will just look up their notes and copy if they can. They even email one another the answers.”
Louise nodded, taking it all it.
“But you can’t come running to me with every little problem,” Zoe warned her. “You have to do the job you are paid to do and let me do my job.”
“Would you like to swap classes with me?” Louise wasn’t going to be totally passive.
Zoe smirked. “I can’t teach accounting,” she smiled for the first time.
“But I can teach economics,” Louise smiled back at her. “And if all you have to do is mark the roll and hand out printed answers, how hard can it be?”
“You’d better get back to your class.” Zoe had already turned away and was re-booting her computer.
Louise turned and left without saying anything.
The Certificate 4 in Training and Assessment commenced that Tuesday night. Louise arrived at the designated lecture hall to find it locked. She waited outside and soon a group of similarly fated TAFE teachers collected around her.
At last a man in his 30’s arrived with a key. “Sorry to keep you all waiting,” he announced. “I didn’t allow enough time to get here from my day job.”
This man was, apparently, their teacher.
“I’m John Hurley. Actually, as of last week, I’m Dr John Hurley.” He chuckled softly to himself. “You know what that means, don’t you?”
One of the male teacher/students offered an opinion. “It means that if any of us has a heart attack, you will be able to deliver CPR?” Louise couldn’t help noticing that the person who offered this suggestion looked far from coronary failure. In fact, he was trim and fit to the point of being definite eye-candy. Louise decided to pay more attention.
Everyone laughed. John Hurley laughed too. He’d opened the door and they were settling themselves at tables. “There is always a wise guy, isn’t there?” Then he turned to the speaker and addressed him directly. “I’m a real doctor! Not one of those blood and bones guys we call ‘doctor’ as a courtesy title.” John paused and looked around the room at his students. “No; my being a doctor allows me to charge this institution an extra $7 per hour for my services.”
This elicited a few disbelieving guffaws and exclamations. A ‘you are kidding!’ could also be heard.
The eye-candy guy spoke next. “Then why did you bother doing it?”
“I ask myself the same thing when I have to work out my HELP payment!” John was sardonic. “No, really, it gives my parents the biggest thrill you can imagine.” John settled himself in front of his desk, sitting on the edge of it and facing the class. “And my doctorate is in educational psychology, so there are many applications. I’m really only doing this as a favour to a friend. And for the money.”
He looked around the class, who were all engaging with him now and surreptitiously checking each other out too.
At that moment a woman entered the room. She looked to be about Louise’s age, but that was where all similarities came to a dead halt. This woman looked like a film star. She had black hair cut in a very chic, straight-edged shoulder length bob with full fringe, and she was wearing an expensive fashion label in turquoise and white.
“And you are?” John the teacher pretended to be put out by this woman’s late arrival.
“Oh, keep your shirt on,” said the woman. “I’m Katherine and you’re lucky I’m here at all.” Katherine took her time assessing the room, then approached a table near the front. She stopped in front of a fellow student who had been seated since they entered the room. “Can you please move so I can sit here?” she demanded of the chosen chair’s occupant. “I have to be near the door in case I need to throw up.”
John Hurley blinked. “Are you unwell?” he asked. “Good thing I’m a doctor!” he said in a stage whisper to the rest of the room.
This comment brought sniggers from a few, but most people were mesmerised by the events so far and didn’t want to miss anything.
“This is better than TV!” thought Lou.
“I will be if I have to sit through this whole course!” Katherine answered. She waited while the obliging fellow-enrollee vacated his chair for her, then proceeded to settle herself in it.
“Well,” John wasn’t quite sure how to proceed but was clearly amused and determined not to be the first to give up the parry, “we will do our best to entertain you, Miss –“
“I’m not a miss, I’m a Ms, and you can call me Katherine.” She paused for a second, then added “B.Ed.”
“Aah!” John the teacher seemed to reach an understanding that had eluded the rest. “And you are pissed that you have to sit in this classroom for 4 hours a week, at night, after a full day of teaching real students, while I get paid to teach you how to suck eggs.”
Katherine smiled and clapped her hands in mock applause. “He really is a doctor! You get to go to the top of the class!”
John raised both his hands. “I hear you! But hey! Don’t shoot the messenger!”
“Well, what should I do?”
“Can you get an RPL for the course?”
“Nope. Not all of it.”
“You tell me!”
“Actually, I can tell you. It’s because your Bachelor of Education is in secondary teaching, and this is tertiary teaching.”
“That’s a load of bullshit and you know it.”
John Hurley laughed.
Katherine continued. “Tertiary my arse! It’s a TAFE for god’s sake! People who don’t have their VCE come here to study. What’s tertiary about that?”
“I hear you, but many of the courses here do require that the student have a VCE.”
“Yeah, a VCE that got them rejected by every university in the southern hemisphere.”
Now the whole room was laughing.
Then, an older man – possibly the oldest member of the group – spoke. “Now, now, young lady, I don’t know what you teach, but I teach refrigeration, and my students have to have a good level of VCE maths to get into my course. And we have a waiting list!” Mr Eye-Candy nodded his agreement to this statement.
Katherine immediately dropped her screeching tone to a dulcet drawl. “I’m not talking about proper trades. I understand the difference, and I don’t mean to be rude or to denigrate your area of expertise, but I have a 4 year degree in education, a graduate degree in my teaching area and 15 years of professional experience, and I’ll be damned if I’ll sit through a fucking Certificate 4 because some deadshit in the TAFE system can’t accept the fact that a university degree in education pisses all over a TAFE certificate in education.” Katherine stopped only to draw breath.
“Oh, yes, I see,” agreed the older man. “Well, in that case, please continue.”
“Thank you.” Katherine nodded her thanks to him.
They didn’t manage to get on to the topic set for the session that evening, but Louise felt she learned more about the structure of education in the state of Victoria than she ever could have from an authorised course. At the end of the night, Katherine stopped her as she walked through the door. “A few of us are going for a coffee at the rissole. Wanna come?”
“Yeah, you know – the RSL.”
Louise could see that the “few of us” actually meant Mr Eye-Candy and his buddy, Sir Beefcake. “Sure!” she accepted with alacrity.
Things were looking up!
Eleven-year-old Peter had sidled up to his mother and was shaking the hair out of his eyes with a flick of his head. He hovered there, standing first on one foot and then on the other. Louise finally noticed and stopped what she was doing, which was checking her emails at the laptop which occupied the end bench in the kitchen.
She leant on the bench and looked at her son. He was a skinny, lanky boy who showed all the signs of being rock-star good-looking in about 6 years’ time. Now he was just skin and bone, with thick brown unruly hair.
“Peter,” Lou asked in her most sensitive tone, “Do you need to go to the toilet?”
Peter laughed. “No, Mum.”
“Then why are you doing the pee-pee dance?”
“Oh, yes you are!” And Louise imitated his movements, hopping nervously from foot to foot as both her sons had done when they were little boys and didn’t want to interrupt what they were doing to visit the lavatory.
“I don’t need to go to the toilet, Mum, thanks for asking.” Peter tried to reclaim ownership of the situation.
“Well, what is it then?” Louise was giving him her undivided attention and they both knew that this could not last for long. Any minute now there would be an unavoidable appointment to be kept, or the phone would ring or someone would knock on the door, so Peter took the plunge.
“Do you think you will get remarried?”
Louise was taken aback, but had to admit it was a fair question under the circumstances. “Probably not,” she answered.
“What about a boyfriend, then?” Peter didn’t sound at all nervous or upset, so although Louise naturally thought her kids might fear such an event, that didn’t seem to fit here.
“Well, I don’t currently have a boyfriend if that’s what you mean.”
Peter shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Duh, I can see that,” he said. “But do you think you might?”
“I really can’t say, Peter,” said Louise. “One day perhaps. Why do you ask?”
“Well, it’s just that Braden sees his father every second weekend, and he has his stepfather at home with him all the rest of the time, and he is always doing fun things with both of them. I just thought it might be good if you got a boyfriend.” Peter’s eyes were wide with the reasonableness of this deduction.
“So, you would like me to get a boyfriend?” Louise wanted to be clear.
Before Peter could respond he was interrupted by James. “I wouldn’t!” James said loudly. He had overheard the conversation from his room, which opened onto the kitchen.
“No one asked you,” said Lou firmly. “And don’t eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.”
“I wasn’t eavesdropping – I couldn’t help hearing!”
“You were eavesdropping,” insisted Lou.
“You were, James,” Peter agreed.
“So?” James decided to confess. “What if I did eavesdrop? This affects me, too.”
“What affects you too?” Lou was confused now.
“You getting a boyfriend!”
“I don’t have a boyfriend!”
James ignored her. “Peter, you have to think this through, man. You can’t just go saying things like that to her – you know how impressionable she is. It would be horrible if she got a boyfriend.”
“Not necessarily.” Peter was hanging on to his point. “It could be good.”
“No, it wouldn’t be good! Imagine it – some guy you don’t even know, telling you to do your homework and go to bed early, and saying that you should help your mother around the house more. And what if he moves in, and makes Mum stop cooking all the things we like so she can start cooking curries because he likes them.”
“No one likes curries!”
“Plenty of men love them!” James insisted. “No, Peter – believe me, we are on a good thing here. Braden’s situation might look good from the outside, but now he has two men bossing him around as well as his mother.”
Louise noticed that now she wasn’t even included in the conversation. She didn’t know whether to be relieved or annoyed.
“I guess.” Peter was coming around.
“Next time you want to raise a topic like that, run it by me first, OK?”
Peter nodded. “Sure thing. Thanks bro.”
Peter loped off and James looked at his mother, shaking his head. He pointed his finger at her and raised his eyebrows as he said “You owe me one.” And he disappeared back into his room.
Raising boys required – well, Louise had no idea what, especially. She was driving James home, having picked him up from Steph’s after an over-night date at her home. Brihony had all but adopted James, and apparently brought Steph and James breakfast in bed when he stayed overnight in Stephanie’s room. With Stephanie.
“Well, they are 17,” thought Lou. “Almost 18 in fact. Actually, Steph 18.” Louise felt better when she remembered that Steph was, legally, an adult; and James was not taking advantage of her. She felt outside the whole event. Never before had she felt that way about anything in James’ life. However, she did feel comfortable being outside this particular event. “Am I a coward?” she asked herself. “Is James missing out on some vital information or attitude-changing knowledge because he has me and not a male parent?” And then the ad came on the radio. Right there, with James in the car.
“Do you want to last longer?” the assertive man asked everyone in radio-land. “Because Man-Up can help you make love for longer!” Louise tried to catch a peek at James without being seen. He was staring straight ahead of himself, concentrating.
Louise felt she had to say something. She didn’t know how to begin so she just began. “You know, ten minutes kills it dead,” she said.
“What?” James spoke as though she had interrupted his thoughts with an irrelevant piece of information.
“Sex,” said Lou, determined to continue. “I don’t mean foreplay, but ten consecutive minutes of sexual intercourse is as much as a normal woman can stand.” She blinked and continued. “Any longer would be very uncomfortable for the woman.”
James was dumbstruck and horrified. Louise pushed on.
“I worry that all these ads give young, normal men the wrong idea.” She indicated a huge billboard advertising pills which proclaimed their power to embellish the masculine abilities of the young, handsome, buff male gym junkie in the picture.
To her great relief, James was interested. So much so, that his interest was greater than his embarrassment at discussing such a thing with his mother. “What do you mean?” he asked tentatively.
“Well, for one thing, these medicines are designed to help old men’s bodies behave like they did when they were 20 years younger. Young men don’t need medication to get an erection.”
James laughed despite his embarrassment. Lou felt encouraged.
“I mean, from my experience with men.”
“Mum!” James wanted to make sure that some areas remained taboo.
“When I was young and dating young men in their twenties,” continued Louise nobly, “it seemed that they had more trouble controlling their erections, than they did trying to get them.”
They both laughed. James was nodding his head.
Lou added “It was the old ‘is that a gun in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?’ scenario.”
James stopped laughing and nodding his head in reluctant but resigned agreement. “So, why all these ads, then, with young guys in them?”
“That’s just how men of all ages see themselves,” explained Louise. James laughed. “It’s true!” Lou insisted. “And the advertisers have figured that out!”
“So,” interrupted James, “you’re saying that men delude themselves and women don’t?”
“No, I’m not saying that. Surely you’ve seen the ads with girls of 16 advertising wrinkle cream? That’s the same thing.” Louise paused, to glance at James, checking to see whether he was still engaged before continuing. “These ads are designed to appeal to the vanity of 50 plus year old men whose bodies are behaving appropriately.” Louise sighed. She really wanted to impart some useful information to her son and there didn’t seem any way of doing it without losing what remained of her maternal dignity. She would much prefer to be the innocent, biscuit-baking mother who listened and laughed. But this was a good opportunity and she couldn’t stop now.
“These medicines – drugs – are not necessary. People slow down as they get older. A young man in his late teens and through his twenties can have sex a few times a day. That is normal. In his 30’s, that becomes once a day. In his 40’s, that becomes every other day. Men in their 50’s and older can have sex once or twice a week if they are sensible about their sexuality.”
“What do you mean?” James had sensed that Louise had skirted around a topic.
“Well, say a man is in his 20’s and can have sex ten times a week. He might only have the opportunity to actually have sex with his partner,” (she thought it best to add a partner, to suggest that his guy was in a monogamous relationship), “5 times a week; so, he might –“
“Yeah, I get it Mum,” James was beyond embarrassment.
“That’s good, James,” Lou tried to sound serious, “because some men don’t see that if they spend their sexual energies then they have to wait for them to be renewed. As they age, men have to wait longer. Some men can’t accept this, so they go for dangerous pills like the ones being advertised.” Lou thought James and she might never have this conversation again, and she wanted him at least to benefit from her experience. “When a man is older, it takes a lot of effort to have sex, so pornography and masturbating seem like an easy solution.”
“Not only older guys use porn and masturbate, Mum,” James was feeling more confident with the subject matter now.
“Sure, of course, but for older men, masturbating to porn can become a substitute for sex, because it doesn’t take any effort –“
“Or they are single,” added James.
“Yes,” Louise was becoming afraid she would never get to make her point. “That’s true, but what I am trying to tell you is that when you are older, you have a set capability. You can use it however you want – on pornography, or with your partner. It takes more effort to restrict yourself to your partner, but if you aren’t disciplined about it, you won’t be able to maintain a healthy sex life at all.” There. She couldn’t be clearer than that.
James looked at the road thoughtfully. Then he nodded. “Makes sense,” he said.
“Yes,” thought Lou. “It does, doesn’t it?”
But James wasn’t finished. “What about women?”
“Well, everyone knows women get menopause in their 50’s,” said Louise.
“Yeah, but sexually? Do they just go on and on and the guy has to take medicine to keep up?”
Louise sighed. Given the conversation so far, that was a pretty fair question, she had to admit.
“No, we all slow down as we age,” she said. “The thing is to be in a good relationship with your lover. And you can see why being the same age would be a benefit. But it isn’t just sex that slows down as you age.”
“As a woman, I can tell you this. Till I was 25, I could stay out late every night of the week, and drink and smoke, and I was fine. Between the ages of 25 and 45, I had to give up smoking and cut down drinking. Since turning 45, if I have more than a couple of glasses of wine, I have a headache the next day! It’s all part of the ageing hardware. I can have a long, healthy life but I have to listen to what my body is telling me and behave appropriately. And for me, having proper sex, even if it is only once or twice a week, is still wonderful.” She felt that she had come to the end of the subject, so ended with “Just remember that a guy who snacks all day long is destroying his appetite for the main course.”
But James was focussed on another aspect of her speech. “You have sex once a week?” His tone was, Louise thought, unnecessarily disbelieving.
Louise had received an email from Stuart, her first true love. Stuart and Louise had met in Canberra in 1978, when he was studying for his masters and she was a fresh undergraduate entrant. They’d been inseparable for almost 3 years, and stayed in touch for a year after Stuart had moved away to take a job interstate. But he had soon met the brilliant, ambitious and wealthy-daddied Jan, so they’d lost touch for 20 years after that.
During that time, Stuart and Jan had had 5 kids and dipped considerably into her father’s investments. They were thus employed when Louise decided to contact Stuart.
She didn’t normally seek out old boyfriends, but Jeff stayed in touch with both his ex-wives and Louise thought that a bit odd. She didn’t mind the first ex-wife, who was closer to Jeff’s age than her own, and whom she had met. She was really part of Jeff’s extended family in the States, since they had dated for years during college and she had, in fact, supported Jeff during his graduate studies. Jeff had even introduced her to her current husband after their divorce, and it was all so long ago. After all, they were divorced before Louise had begun high school! That was one of the by-products of marrying an older man.
But the second wife was a different story. Their brief marriage had been much more recent. She was a year younger than Louise, and Jeff kept their wedding album with his personal items in his closet. He was in constant touch with her via email and seemed to have a lot of information regarding her current love-life and financial situation. Her name came up far too frequently and, unlike the first wife, Louise was never invited to meet her, although Jeff always carved out some time to see her when she was in town or he was going her way.
All in all, Louise was aware that her husband’s relationship with his previous wife was not concluded.
So Louise thought that perhaps if she was able to develop a platonic relationship with an ex-lover, it might go some way to assuage her feelings of suspicion and jealousy. Stuart sprang immediately to mind.
Thanks to the internet, and the professional profile he and Jan had established, he was easy to find. He was also delighted to hear from her.
“Louie!!!” His email read. “How great to hear from you! Yes – I come to Melbourne from time to time and yes – I would love to catch up!”
Louise had announced the resulting lunch date to Jeff, and he had responded with enforced half-interest “Well, you’d better get a new dress.”
“You’d better believe it!” thought Lou. Stuart and Louise had sent each other photos of their respective family groupings, and while he had changed, Stuart was still an attractive man. “Sort of a cross between Bill Clinton and Elvis Presley,” she explained to Jane when she told her about the upcoming date and Jane had asked for more information.
“So, are you going to have it off with him?” Sisters were so blunt and always ‘went there’.
“Well, it all depends,” answered Louise.
“On what?” Jane was enthralled. At last something exciting was going to happen!
“On lots of things!” Louise was being deliberately cagey.
“Like, for instance?”
“Whether his wife comes; how many of his kids are there, whether he pays for lunch…” Louise was counting these excuses off on her fingers.
Jane laughed. “Is Jan coming too?” Now she was really interested.
“Actually, I don’t know.” Louise realised that that was a possibility. Better factor that in when choosing lunch-date outfit: mental note to self.
But, of course, Jan was not there when she met Stuart at the Southbank restaurant for lunch. They had a lovely meal and discussed their kids and the more salubrious family holidays each had taken; which schools they’d chosen for their kids and the odd personal career detail.
As they had each been on fairly intimate terms with each other’s parents and siblings and extended family member for quite a few years, they also caught up on these people. All in all, it was a very satisfactory reunion.
So satisfactory, in fact, that they repeated these lunches at least annually; and sometimes more often than that.
Their next meeting had to be a dinner, since Louise couldn’t get away during the day anymore. Dinners were different to lunches. Dinner was at night.
Louise voiced her concerns at a Friday night drinks session taking place in her courtyard. There assembled were Julia and Jack, Katherine and Diana.
As soon as Louise told them of her dinner date with Stuart, set for the following Tuesday night, Katherine asked “So, is this going to be a sleepover?”
Louise laughed. “That’s exactly what my sister asked!”
Julia nodded. “It’s about time,” she said.
“About time for what?” Louise asked.
“Well, you don’t really think Jeff is going without, do you?”
Louise laughed. “Oh, no. I’m quite sure he isn’t.”
Julia, Jack, Katherine and Diana all listened more closely when Julia asked “Does Jeff have a girlfriend?”
“I’m sure he does – but he hasn’t said anything if that’s what you’re asking. American men have to have a girlfriend, whether they like her or spend much time with her or not. It’s all part of the generally homophobic national psyche.” Louise paused to let that sink it, amused to be entertaining her friends. “That, and the introduction of farm machinery.”
“Farm machinery?” Jack asked, confused.
“Yes, they are an agrarian nation of big, strong people who sit behind desks now that the farm machinery does all the laborious work. Sex is just another physical outlet for them. I think that must be why so many American office blocks have a couple of gymnasiums. It cuts down on the sexual harassment charges.”
Diana giggled. “I don’t see the connection.”
But Lou was insistent. “Are you telling me that when you were married you didn’t notice that marital relations took a rest on the days your husband worked out? I sure did!”
Julia gasped and nudged Jack. “She’s right!” she exclaimed. “Well, no more long bike rides for you!”
Jack laughed. “I thought you enjoyed the break!” he protested, defending himself from Julia’s nudging.
“You are avoiding the original question, Lou,” Katherine was not to be deterred. “Is this the Big Night? You know – your first lover after the husband?”
Julia laughed, “Stuart’s married! He has 5 kids!”
“So? Married ex-boyfriends are the largest source of romance for divorced women.” Katherine refilled her drink and flicked her black locks off her shoulder as she leant forward. “I don’t know what I would have done without Stephen. He was my boyfriend at uni; then, when Peter left me with two small kids for his young co-worker, I was devastated. I was only 36 and still in love with him. I don’t think I could have coped without Stephen then.”
“You just rang him up?” asked Julia, disbelievingly.
“Actually, I ran into him at Bunnings,” Katherine laughed. “We had an affair for more than a year.”
“The thing about old boyfriends is that they aren’t new or scary,” agreed Diana.
“You, too?” asked Lou.
“Yes,” said Diana. “Except that I didn’t break up with mine. We have been seeing each other for 12 years now.”
Louise knew that Diana regularly attended bible study class on Wednesday night and was fascinated by this cognitive dissonance or whatever you called it when your actions and beliefs were at odds with one another.
Diana continued. “It’s so safe and comfortable. It’s the perfect bridge between marriage and your new life as either a single woman or part of a new couple.”
“But,” said Julia, “if you have been seeing your married ex-boyfriend for 12 years – that’s not really a bridge. It’s more of a place all of its own.”
“Yes, this one backfired,” Diana agreed. “I’m so in love with him I don’t want to move on.”
“How does he feel?” Katherine asked.
“Well, he loves me too, but he won’t leave his wife and family. He couldn’t stand to be the bad guy. And he feels sorry for me and wants me to find a whole new life for myself. He says it isn’t fair on me. But I have my career – and three teenage kids! I don’t really want a man moving in and upsetting our home. No, this is perfect really. It suits everyone.”
“I doubt it suits his wife!” laughed Jack.
“She doesn’t have to have sex with him, and that suits her apparently.” Diana shrugged.
Jack turned to Julia. “How about you, Jules?” he asked. “Have you ever recycled an old flame?”
Julia laughed. “I haven’t had to yet, but I have hung on to my little black book. So,” here she leaned closer to her husband, “you had better give up one of your gym memberships or I may have to dig it out!”
Louise had been intrigued to learn of Diana’s long relationship with her married boyfriend. Sensing that the secrecy had been a burden, she tentatively posed a few burning questions.
They lived in neighbouring streets so it was common practice that one would drop in on the other unannounced. Louise had a jam-jar to return. Diana made delicious jam in the autumn, and Louise made sure her jam-jars were returned so that she would not lose her place as a lucky recipient.
Diana had just finished painting the new extension to her home, and Louise came to admire that, too. The new area gave Diana a new master suite and a second lounge-room. It had high ceilings and skylight windows, and took full view of the garden Diana had lovingly tended for 15 years, ensuring that it which bloomed all year round.
“Wow,” said Louise appreciatively. “Worth it!” She knew Diana had increased the mortgage to build the extension, a brave move for a single woman with three teenagers and a stressful, professional job.
Diana smiled. “Yes, I’m really pleased with it. This way the kids can have the other living room and I can have this one.
Louise looked around and saw Diana’s two kids, and the Labrador dog, sitting comfortably in various chairs in the new lounger. They didn’t look like visitors to the room, but more like kids who were in their favourite spots.
Diana laughed at Louise’s raised eyebrows and silent questioning of the sense of her last statement, and responded with “Well, that’s the theory anyway.”
Diana’s daughter looked up. “This room is the warmest,” she said with a beautific smile.
Her older brother looked up and added “And this room has the best wi-fi connection.”
Diana’s smiled at Louise and shrugged. “Come down to the kitchen,” she said, and led the way down the long hall, leaving her kids to enjoy her new lounge room without her.
Louise decided to take the plunge and ask her the question she had been dying to ask.
“So, Diana – what’s the long term plan with your guy?” Diana had not mentioned his name and Louise didn’t want to ask anything that would allow him to be identified. Not that she expected to know who he was if she did learn his name; but just because it was clear that discretion had been the survival rule in this relationship.
Diana smiled at Louise. This was a sensitive subject, and a situation as long standing as this one required secrecy and discretion. Louise was flattered that Diana had divulged such personal information. She must have felt safe to do so and Louise was glad of that, because Diana was becoming a close friend, and she may have some confidences of her own to share one day.
Making new friends in your mid-life was not easy, and as a newly single woman in a new city, it was an important aspect of Louise’s life.
“Well,” Diana smiled, clearly happy to say anything about her love, and positive about the future, “the long term plan is that his kids grow up and leave home and he gets a divorce, gives her the house and comes and lives with me.”
“By which time your own kids will have grown up and moved out, too,” added Louise.
“That’s the plan,” Diana was still smiling.
“What about her illness?” Louise asked.
“The wife. What will he do when she gets sick?”
“She isn’t sick.” Diana frowned, not understanding.
“Probably not yet, but she will be.” Louise nodded her response.
“What do you mean? Do you know her?”
“I know women,” answered Louise. “If you have been having an affair with this woman’s husband for more than a decade, I’d bet she knows by now. But he hasn’t left her.”
Diana laughed softly. “He says they are happier because of me. Apparently she went off sex after the fourth child.”
“Fancy that,” laughed Louise.
“Yeah, I know,” agreed Diana. “If anything would put you off, four kids in 6 years would do it. We met during that period–“
“Yes, anyway, she’s never wondered why he doesn’t initiate sex with her, and is quite happy with things that way.”
“So why do you think she will accept a divorce? She’s clearly accepted the status quo, whether she admits that she knows he is unfaithful to her. She must prefer being marred because she could have confronted him and demanded that he be faithful or get a divorce.”
“I don’t think she knows about me though.”
Louise shrugged. “Let’s say she does know – or at least suspects – that there is another woman on the scene who is sleeping with her husband so that she doesn’t have to; and who has been around for a decade or more without causing any real concerns. This married woman has never worked. What will she do when the kids leave home and her husband starts to make “We will be happier living separately” noises?”
Diana shrugged. “What can she do?”
“Oh, Diana – it is so obvious! She has had a successful life of dependency – she will become mysteriously ill! Her illness will be unidentifiable – it will be headaches and back pain and dizziness. She won’t be able to live alone, darling! Think about it! This woman has lived on her wits for 30 years! Why do you think that you, who has been busy with the practical business of raising a family single-handedly and maintaining an old house on your own and getting a degree and building a career, that you would be any match for a woman who spends every waking moment gathering about her comforts earned for her by her husband? She will be 55 years old! She certainly won’t just accept that it is your turn now. And she knows her husband. She has kept him this long because-“
“- Because he doesn’t want to be the bad-guy in front of the kids.” Diana blinked as she spoke, as though she could see the situation Louise was describing.
“Exactly!” said Louise.
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Diana admitted.
“I’ll bet he has,” suggested Louise.
“What about him?” Katherine and Louise sat at the kitchen bench in front of Lou’s laptop. Katherine was showing Louise how to surf the internet dating site efficiently. She had quickly logged on and was now setting the parameters for Louise’s search for true love.
Katherine turned to Louise. “We will have to take some nice photos of you, to set up a profile.”
“Hang on,” said Lou. “Can’t I look at the men first?” She wriggled forward on her stool to examine the laptop screen which Katherine had been dominating as she found the site.
Katherine pushed the laptop closer to Louise. “Go ahead,” she said. She then slid off her stool and refilled both their glasses from the bottle of Yellow sparkling wine. Louise peered onto the screen.
“600 men?” she ejaculated. “How can I possibly search through the profiles of 600 men?”
Katherine reinstated herself beside Lou. “You have to refine your search. What do you want?” Louise blinked and looked at her as though she had never thought about it before. Katherine sighed.
“You must have some idea of the kind of man you would like to meet,” she insisted. “Like, what age? Where should he live? What sort of job should he have?”
“Really?” Louise smiled. “I can just choose everything?”
Katherine snorted a laugh. “Asking ain’t getting, honey child! But let me give you a few tips.” Louise knew that prior to meeting Shane, Katherine had dated a couple of men from this site and had some relevant experience, so she sat up and took notice. Katherine continued. “Remember the ‘add 5 yrs and deduct 2 inches’ rule. Also, don’t email back and forth for more than a day before you speak to them on the phone. Just hearing their voice gives you so much information.”
“But don’t they already tell you about their education?” Louise was looking at the site.
“Some people think ‘post graduate’ means they got their results in the mail.”
Louise giggled at Katherine’s little joke. But Katherine wasn’t finished. “Anyway, I don’t mean that. Some guys are just a big drag, and you can hear it in their voice. You know, gloomy and beaten sounding. Or full of themselves, and speaking over the top of you. And some men have really old photos, but you can hear their age in their voice.”
It was Louise’s turn to make a joke. “Like, if they, like, say ‘like’ a lot, they are, like, too young?”
Katherine smiled. “Exactly!” she agreed.
By the end of the evening, Katherine had helped set Louise up with her own account, a profile photo and a written introduction about herself. And on the strength of this, Louise had sent notices to a few men to let them know she thought they were interesting. “Now you just wait and see what happens,” Katherine advised her.
“Alright then,” said Louise.
What surprised Lou most of all was that nothing much had changed. On the dating scene, that is. In every other sphere of her life everything had changed, but dating was still a pit of disappointment just waiting to drag you down further than you ever imagined it could.
When she was married, she and her married girlfriends would fantasise about past boyfriends; how young and desirable they, the girls, had been; how they had had their pick of young Romeos and wannabe lovers. But being thrown back into the cesspool of single-dom quickly exposed these memories as the frauds they were. As a nubile 19 year old, Lou remembered only ever being leered at by older, unattractive men of doubtful virility while the Bondi Vet specimens wafted past, unaware of her existence. She recalled this now because of the sameness of her current experience, and realised that she was now herself less desirable but more discerning: a most unfortunate combination.
Today the only real difference was the complete no-show of the Bondi Vet specimen. Even in her mid 40’s, only older men showed any interest and, little blue pills notwithstanding, Lou had no desire to travel down that road.
It turned out that internet dating was a peculiar world with its own language and mores. The men all apparently possessed a magic mirror. When they looked into this mirror, they saw not the Santa Clause-esque physique of a 60 year old man who’d spent 40 of those years drinking beer and standing in the sun. They saw the rippling muscles of Brad Pitt and described themselves as “a young 55”, shamelessly scraping 5 years right off the top and never even considering the fact that they should divulge their true age. Consequently, they sought Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston as their appropriate other half, and only wanted to meet women 20 years younger than themselves.
For it is an accepted thing that women like older men, isn’t it?
But Lou didn’t like older men. Not romantically, that is. She didn’t like younger men either. She wanted a man her own age, who had some experience of the world she lived in; who could go from being a stranger – that most confronting of individuals – to becoming a familiar friend – in double-quick time. She didn’t want to date a guy of almost 70; to count out his pills; to wait half an hour for them to kick in; to make sure they wore off in the correct timeframe. And she wasn’t getting any younger.
It was a hopeless enterprise, she realised at last. Sure, there were plenty of men available to date on the internet websites, but none of them attracted her. Not even one. At least when she was 19, everyone was single and you didn’t have to worry about whether they were in fact still married. And back then, she hadn’t had to factor in erectile dysfunction, child support payments, internet porn and HIV AIDS.
It was different if your established husband, during your shared middle years, suffered from the normal reduction in virility which accompanies age. By that stage, you have built a life together and sex isn’t the glue in your relationship any more. There are hundreds of other things holding you together; things like your kids, and your parents, and your home, and your debts, and your memories, and your inter-reliance on, and access to, each other’s memory, and bank account, and car when your own fail you; and your address book with the names and addresses of all your friends, and your knowledge of each other’s likes and dislikes, and his scent when he is sleeping or has just had a shower. All those – familiar – things.
When you lose those things that were your life, you start to fear the future because it doesn’t seem as friendly as the day before yesterday. It seems empty and pointless and frighteningly lonely. And it doesn’t matter whether your defunct marriage was a happy one or not; or if you left or were left. All that matters is that your “building a life” years are behind you, and the life you built is no more. And you have to go on into that future regardless. On and on.
“So why do you do it?” Julia and Louise were taking their constitutional through the leafy streets of their neighbourhood.
It was a fair enough question, and one that Louise had asked herself. “Lots of reasons, I suppose,” she answered. “For one thing, there are times when I feel quite alone, and online dating is proof that I am far from that.” She paused for a minute, considering the question. “But the real reason, for me, is that it keeps being single ‘real’ for me.”
“How do you mean?” asked Julia.
“Well, by meeting men my age, for coffee, I can see that they are just as confused and normal and human and wrong about everything as I am!” Louise laughed at her description. “They aren’t sex-maniac ogres; they aren’t playing the field on the internet any more than men ever did that. People vilify the internet as though there was no infidelity in marriage before internet dating – yet people have been having illicit affairs since the ark! The men I meet on the internet are the same men I would meet at church or work if I went to either of those places.”
“How disappointing!” It was Julia’s turn to laugh.
“You said it,” agreed Louise glumly. “I am the Queen of the coffee date! So far I haven’t liked anyone enough to do more than meet them for coffee!
And it had been fairly disappointing.
The first man had been a blue-eyed boy who had described himself as a high-school teacher. In fact he had been the sailing trainer at a private school. They didn’t pay him much and he got to live on campus, fulfilling a security role. He hadn’t finished high school himself, so he enjoyed this position.
The second man, a handsome, swarthy, athletic type, was married. When Louise admitted that this was a game-changer for her, he criticised her choice of clothing.
“I can’t believe you would wear corduroy jeans to a coffee date,” he said.
Louise was startled. Before she could stop herself, she said “But they are David Lawrence!” Then she left.
The third man seemed very attractive and nice, but he’d immediately begun sending her sexy texts. “Please stop,” she replied, and he did.
The next man was attractive and eloquent. He promised to call her, and he did – to tell her he wouldn’t be calling her. Louise didn’t ask him why not. She just thanked him for his call and hung up.
Another man was a good 15 years older than his photo; so were the next 5 men. And the same number of possible starters gave inaccurate descriptions of their educational achievements.
“It seems that all the men I want to date, who are successful, attractive and financially secure, don’t really go for women their own age who are short, brown haired, with three teenage kids,” Louise explained to Katherine. “They seem to prefer women in their 30’s with no kids, long legs, long, blonde hair and big white teeth. Who knew?”
Louise’s birthday party had been organised for a Friday night. Her actual birthday was on Saturday, but Fridays were better for parties, she thought.
For one thing, you were already up and dressed after a day at work, so less likely to be at home, relaxed, not feeling like dressing up and going out; for another, it was Friday and you were happy about that alone; and finally, it left two whole days to recover and have the full weekend experience – little enough time for most working single mothers to do all the things they had been unable to do while they had been at work all week.
There were enough men coming now, since Louise had invited Mr Eye-Candy and Sir Beefcake from the Certificate 4 course at work, along with Barry, and John the builder. With Jack and Louie, that tipped the male-to-female ratio nicely in favour of the girls.
“How many are you expecting?” Julia asked when she called to say she would be bringing a plate whether Lou wanted one or not. Louise wasn’t sure if this was a vote of no confidence in her ability to cater, or evidence of Julia’s homestead upbringing, where she had regularly cooked for a cattle station full of workmen. Whatever it was, the plate was sure to be bounteous.
“About eleven, I think,” answered Lou.
“Eleven!” Julia was surprised.
“Is that too many?”
“No, of course not. Eleven is great – a real party!”
“That’s the plan,” Louise laughed.
“So, who, exactly?’ Julia asked.
“Diana, whom you’ve already met them; Katherine from work and two guys we know, also from work; Barry, another teacher; and John.”
“Who is John?”
“You know,” said Lou. “John is the builder who is overseeing the work on our townhouses.”
Julia paused. “You invited the builder?” she asked in a disbelieving tone.
“Yes,” said Louise, a bit nervously now. “Should I not have? We already have a contract – it won’t affect their work or the price, will it?”
“No,” said Julia.
“He’s not married, is he?” Louise was concerned now, wondering what possible objection Julia could have to their inclusion.
“I don’t know – I don’t even know him,” she said. “Well, well, Lou – I didn’t know you liked a bit of rough trade!”
“Julia! What an expression!”
“Although I must agree with your taste. John is kinda cute, in a workman sort of way.”
“Billy Ray Cyrus,” said Louise.
“He looks like Billy Ray Cyrus.”
Julia laughed and exclaimed “He does! Oh my God – that is so funny! Wait till Jack hears about this – you and Bob the Builder!”
“Stop, Julia – you’ll put the mockers on it!”
“Is that what you brazen hussies call it these days?”
“Seven!” said Lou before hanging up. “Be here at seven!”
Camille and Peter were billeted to friends’ places for sleepovers on the big night, so, after dropping them off, Louise spent the afternoon preparing the house for the party. James was going out for a while but would return after midnight, which Louise thought was just as well. This would serve as a reminder to wind up the party in case anyone was still partying by that time.
She put flowers in every corner of the lounge room; turned the lights off and the lamps on; pushed the dining table up against the wall under the framed mirror and plugged her party-mix ipod into the sound system.
The first to arrive was John. He smelled of Aramis aftershave and Louise had to refrain from kissing him then and there. “Oh my God,” she thought to herself, “this is going to be harder than I thought. Much, much harder.” She looped her arm into his and accepted the bunch of camellias he handed her. His arms were hard. His neck was taught. His chest was broad. His –
“Louise!” Newly arrived, Judith brought her back to her senses. She looped Lou’s other arm and smiled at John. “Hi John – nice to see you! Let me just borrow the hostess for a moment – I’ve baked all these pastries and need to know where to put them.” And with that she bustled Louise off into the kitchen.
“Hi, Judith!” Louise was back to Earth.
Judith laughed. “Oh my God – you have it bad, girl.”
“What?” Louise couldn’t wipe the smile off her face.
“The hots! You, my dear, have the hots for Billy Ray!” She looked around to see where her husband was, and spotted him pouring drinks for himself and John. “Although I can’t say I blame you.”
At that moment there was a knock on the door. It was Katherine. Before she could close the door, Mr Eye-Candy and Sir Beefcake entered. Katherine kissed them both on the cheek and ushered them in.
Within five minutes, everyone had arrived. As soon as they were in a corner of the kitchen, Diana demanded of Louise: “Where are all the gorgeous men from?”
Louise, who was already on to her third champagne, giggled, “Aren’t they lovely?”
“Yes,” agreed Diana, “they are. But where are they from?”
“Diana – that is so ‘Melbourne’! Who cares where they are from? They are from heaven, darling! And it’s my birthday!” Now Louise was doing a little jig to the song that was playing: Michael Jackson’s ‘You’ve got to be starting something’.
Louise wriggled off to the dance floor she had set up in the lounge room, where John was happy to stand in front of her and rhythmically jostle his left shoulder in time to the music. This was sufficient to encourage Louise to perform the complete repertoire of her rather extensive dance moves, which both entertained and fascinated her more sedate friends.
Fortunately Judith had brought numerous platters of delicious savouries because as it happened, all Louise had provided was alcohol. It was true that she had anticipated every taste, and had beer (which she never drank) and claret (which she only used in cooking) and white wine (which she drank when there was no champagne) and champagne, which she preferred.
“You brought me flowers,” Louise said to John.
“I wanted to bring you something you would like,” he smiled at her.
“I knew you were a champagne lady.”
Louise winced at his use of the word ‘lady’. It was like saying ‘pardon’ when you really meant to say ‘what’. But he was so handsome and he smelled so good….
“I so am a champagne lady,” she smiled at him.
Later, when John was attending to other matters, Mr Eye-Candy, whose name turned out to be Damien, delivered himself to Louise’s side. Louise smiled at him. “Hello! I’m so glad you could come. Do you have a drink?”
“Yes, thanks,” he smiled at her. Louise noticed how developed his biceps were, and how tall he was. “What is happening to me?” she wondered. “Am I becoming a lecherous old woman?”
“I was just talking to Katherine,” he continued. “She is going to get me to install air-conditioning in her house. So, if you think you need me, too…”
“That’s right,” Louise was finally paying attention. “You teach refrigeration, don’t you?”
“Yeah, just part-time,” Damien shrugged. “I have my own business but after the divorce, I needed to catch up financially.”
“I’ll bet,” said Louise. “That’s something we all have in common.”
Damien smiled. “You’re an accountant! You should be right!”
Louise laughed. “Being an accountant is useful, in that I know which mistakes to avoid, I suppose. But it isn’t a pot-of-gold solution. Unfortunately there is still only one sure fire way to get rich, if you don’t inherit wealth.”
“And what is that?”
“Hard work and deprivation!”
“Yes. It’s no good working hard and earning a lot of money if you go out and spend it, is it? You won’t get rich doing that!”
“But isn’t that why people work hard? To buy things?”
“Sure, but they can either buy things or accumulate wealth. Unless they are buying appreciating assets, like real estate, they will be poorer after they have spent their money.” God, Lou thought, I need to drink more! Why am I talking about this?
Damien nodded thoughtfully. “So, deprivation is the only way to get rich, you reckon?”
Louise smiled. She remembered being 15 when everyone “reckoned” everything. It was ‘the word.’
“I reckon,” she said. “And then, of course, we have to deal with the obvious fall-out of deprivation.”
“What’s that?” he smiled.
“Pent-up demand,” Louise fluttered her eyelashes at him saucily. Damien laughed and nodded.
“You are out-of-control!” he said.
“In my own home, on my birthday, you had better believe it!”
Louise danced with both her hunky fellow Certificate IV students; and John. She flitted from man to man, first dancing with, then passing them along to be shared amongst her perfumed and painted female friends where they were received as happily as a Christmas bonus.
Katherine arrived the next morning with coffee from the local café – real, hot coffee. James was up and let her in, inviting her to go straight up to his mother’s room.
Katherine laughed when she saw Louise’s dishevelled head being clutched in her hands, a low groan telling her that Louise was, in fact, awake.
“I feel sick,” Louise wailed.
Katherine handed her the cup she was holding. “I thought you might,” she said. “Here, drink this.”
Louise took the cup and although the smell of the freshly brewed coffee was a bit overwhelming, she sipped it gratefully and with enjoyment. “Oh, God – thank you Katherine.” Then she added, “Do you mind if we don’t discuss last night?”
Katherine sat on the end of the bed. “Why?” she asked. “What happened?”
The thought ran through Louise’s head that Katherine may have come over so early, bearing the coffee as a camouflage, to see whether Louise was alone that morning; but she dismissed the thought as ungrateful and suspicious. Nevertheless…
“Nothing you don’t already know about, but I don’t feel well enough to cope with embarrassment as well. So please, if you could just wait a day or two till I am feeling better, then you can tease me about it all you like.”
Katherine laughed. “Tell you what,” she said, “I’ll wait a day. How’s that?”
Louise nodded. “A day is good. Thanks.” And she drank her coffee.
“You’re welcome,’ said Katherine.
Louise really wanted to hear about the whole party – and what sort of time everyone had had; but she couldn’t bear to hear about her own antics right now and determined to steer clear of the whole subject. She rubbed her head. “Did I mention that Mum is coming to live with us?”
Katherine stopped what she was doing, which was inspecting the jars of face cream on Louise’s dressing table and looked at Lou. “No!” she said.
Louise nodded. “Yes, she wants to get away from the Canberra winter. And as she is on the lung transplant list at the Alfred hospital, living here in Melbourne will make it easier for her to get to her appointments every six weeks. Currently she has to fly in for the day for every appointment.”
“But if she lives in Canberra, why is she on the list at the Alfred?” asked Katherine.
“Because Canberra is too small to have its own transplant unit. From Canberra, patients have to choose between Sydney and Melbourne, and since I live here, and you have to show that you have after-care in order to remain on the list, Mum opted for Melbourne.”
Katherine took this in. “And is she likely to get one soon?”
“Well, she’s been on the list for almost two years, and that is longer than a lot of people,” said Louise. “She is basically waiting for the phone to ring.”
Katherine frowned. “But where is she going to stay?”
“Here!” said Louise.
“But where?” insisted Katherine. “You don’t have a spare room.”
“Camille will have to share with me while she is here.”
“It will be okay,” Louise shrugged. “It won’t be forever.”
“Do you and your mother get along?” Katherine was clearly thinking of living with her own mother, and perceptibly shuddering at the mere thought.
“We do and we don’t,” smile Louise. “Mum’s a bit tricky.”
“Oh, God!” Katherine rolled her eyes. “This will be interesting.” Then she looked as though a light had gone on in her head. “Is that why you had the birthday party and let your hair down – because your mother is about to land on you?”
Louise smiled at her friend. “You’re not just a pretty face after all, are you dear?”
Katherine laughed. “Not even!”
Louise and her mother, Mary, were more like sisters than mother and daughter. Mary had been 18 when she married Jim and 19 when she had Louise. As the other children arrived in quick succession, Mary had trained Louise in the feminine arts of bottle feeding, nappy changing, clothes folding, tea making and singing.
Mary taught Louise all the songs of her youth as they folded the never-ending piles of washing that were the inevitable result of a new baby every two years. By the time Mary was 28 and Jim 30, she had had six babies.
As a young child – and like most youngsters – Louise had adored her mother and did everything she could to help her with her never-ending daily chores. Mary was her best friend and Louise knew how much her mother relied on her. Extended family and neighbours constantly commented on the extent of the help Mary received from Louise, and Mary took these accolades as compliments on her superior mothering, to have raised such a loving, helpful girl.
But the family had grown up, and Mary’s life had changed. She’d gone back to work, and left Louise to deal with the younger kids after school. By the time Mary – and Jim – arrived home after a day at the office, the house had been cleaned by Louise while she supervised the younger ones.
Actually, Louise barely supervised her younger siblings at all. That was a fantasy enjoyed by her parents which allowed them to believe that their parental responsibilities were being discharged. Louise detested her younger siblings. Not only did they not assist her with her numerous after-school chores – they were a constant nuisance and doubled her work. Louise was a focussed student, and counted on doing her housework within the first two hours after arriving home each afternoon, so she could then spend at least an hour on her homework before dinner and a couple of hours after dinner.
And the younger ones didn’t like Louise any more than she liked them. To them, Louise was that hybrid-entity: not an adult, but not a child; responsible but not powerful, and they resented her bossy attitude, not for a minute seeing that she was as dissatisfied with the arrangement as were they. And this arrangement held for 9 years – from the time Louise was 9 years old until she was 18.
While Louise continued to solve her parent’s housekeeping problems, these problems ceased to exist for everyone but her. Mary had long since stopped even thinking about all the housework Louise did after school each day. When she went to work, the house was dirty from the night before and the kids were still in bed. When she arrived home, the house was shining and clean and the kids settled.
The kids were settled because they were exhausted. Louise was tired out from two hours of housework after a full day at school, and the others were sleepy after fighting with, and chasing, each other around the house as Louise cleaned, tidied and vacuumed it and made all the beds.
Mary had been thrilled to return to work when her youngest child was just a year old, and in anticipation had enrolled in a night class at the local business college to upgrade her shorthand skills. Just setting off to attend the night classes was hugely enjoyable. She didn’t have a driver’s licence yet but that would come. At 29, she was slim, very pretty, and looked much younger than her years. When she started working again in 1970, no one guessed that she had a large family and if she didn’t raise the subject, she could masquerade as a happy-go-lucky young woman along with her co-workers.
The two youngest, who were not yet school-aged, were dropped off at a home day-carer on Mary’s way to work, and picked up on the way home. But as soon as they were at school, they joined their siblings on the school bus.
If there were days one or other of them didn’t make it to the bus, who knew? Louise’s bus left a good 20 minutes before theirs, and she arrived home half an hour later than they did.
Jim had been supportive of Mary returning to the workforce, thinking that she was only doing it so that they could save faster for the home they dreamed of building. Mary played the part of the overworked young mother for his benefit, but in fact nothing could have prevented her from reclaiming at least some of her former life. And nothing did that like a fortnightly paycheque.
After Mary and Jim left each morning, one by one the kids straggled into the bathroom, ate or didn’t eat a bowl of cornflakes which they poured for themselves; did or didn’t brush their hair before wandering off to the bus stop; hopefully remembering to collect the fairly unappetising vegemite sandwich Mary had made for each of them and left on the kitchen bench.
When Louise reached her teens and got a boyfriend and a social life, Mary regularly took her shopping and indulged her daughter’s taste in fashionable clothes. Louise saw this as her reward for years of housework, wrongly attributing her mother’s generosity to gratitude for years of servitude. But Mary bought her daughter clothes because that is what parents do. For her, there was no notion of reward. And as the others grew, they too received new, fashionable clothes.
It was Louise’s boyfriend, Stuart, who had stopped the housework habit Louise had developed. She had just begun studying for her degree, and they had met in the first week. Stuart had arrived to take Louise to the library with him, but she had said she couldn’t go because she had to finish the housework.
Stuart was disbelieving. “You shouldn’t be doing their housework!” he insisted.
Louise was surprised at his tone, and a bit embarrassed. He said ‘their housework’ as though it had nothing to do with her.
“I have to,” she explained. “I can’t leave it for Mum to do when she gets home from work.”
But Stuart would have none of it. He looked around the large house and said “They should get a cleaner – they can afford it!”
“No,” insisted Louise. “They can’t afford it!”
“Come off it, Lou. Some people just love to cry poor. Both your parents have well-paid jobs, and your father has a very well paid job. He drives an MG and your mum drives a Mercedes Benz. They have three colour televisions, for God’s sake. This house is a mansion – why should you clean it for them? Why should you subsidise their lifestyle with your labour?” He made it sound as though the whole thing was her parent’s problem and they should solve it.
Stuart sensed her confusion and continued. “You’re a full-time student. You shouldn’t be doing this. Just leave it.” And he had unceremoniously dragged Louise off to his car. He drove her to the library, where they worked for an hour, and then took her to the union bar to have a glass of cider with their friends.
When they returned, it was after seven, and Stuart accompanied her into the house. He was four years older than Louise, a graduate student. Stuart was also over 6 feet tall and president of the student’s union on campus. He exuded goodwill and authority and few were immune to his reasonable attitude to life.
The house was dirty and messy from the night before, that morning, and this afternoon. Mary and Jim wandered around looking slightly dazed, and met Louise with expressions which awaited an explanation.
Louise had expected them to be concerned for her well-being. This was the first time she had ever let them down and perhaps they were worried that she had been in an accident. But she could immediately see that that was not either of her parents’ primary concern at all. She felt a bit deflated.
“Oh, there you are,” her father began. His expression had already changed to anger but, when he saw Stuart there behind her, he immediately re-arranged his expression into one of goodwill. Louise noticed that, too. “Oh, hello Stuart,” he said.
“Hi, Jim,” said Stuart breezily. Then he looked around. “What a mess!” he exclaimed. “What’s been going on here?”
Mary emerged from the kitchen. “We just got home,” she explained.
“Don’t all the kids help you clean up?” Stuart asked.
Jim looked at Mary. Neither of them spoke. Stuart continued. “Louise had a late lecture, so I waited in the library for her so I could drive her home.” He looked at Jim. “You should probably get her a car, you know. The buses are not very reliable after hours, and she has lectures every night till seven now. I can bring her home some nights, but on the nights I can’t she will be an hour on the bus and won’t be home till eight.
Louise was speechless with shock. No one had ever spoken to her father like this before – like his equal. She wondered what was going to happen.
“Oh, yes, you’re probably right.” Jim agreed. “We will have to see about getting her a car.”
Stuart smiled. “Well, you look like you have a lot of housework to do so I might take Lou to my place for dinner. We can’t have her dropping out because she can’t keep up with her workload.”
Mary and Jim stood there, surrounded by mess and bedraggled kids who were still wearing grubby school uniforms. Stuart kept talking as he ushered Louise back out the door. “Lou is exhausted. They really work the first years hard, to try to weed out the weaklings.” It was true. There were only eight universities in Australia in 1978, and keeping your place in one, were you lucky enough to get a place, required constant vigilance. Louise saw her parents visibly repeal their looks of disquiet at her negligence and replace them with looks of horror at the thought that she might be one of the weak students who were weeded out. Stuart smiled at them and chuckled before he closed the door. “You guys need a maid!” And they were off.
After that, Louise didn’t even bother to keep her own room clean. It was true that she worked fairly hard at uni; but she had a lot of fun, too. Her parents engaged an after-school mother’s help, and far from expecting Louise to help at all around the house any more, she was discouraged from even finding a part-time job and consequently finished her degree on time, and with a decent grade point average.
Since then, Mary and Louise had grown apart. Mary shifted her focus to her younger daughters – the boys were Jim’s domain – and Louise came to realise that her parents had never guessed how much her labour had contributed to the comfort of the whole family while limiting her access to the extra-curricular activities enjoyed by other girls her age.
But now her mother, barely 65 years old, was an old, frail woman. She had smoked from the age of 17 and only given up the habit when she was 57, having developed full-blown emphysema. Her previous beauty was now evident only in old, faded photos and she could barely walk to the car without exhausting her strength. The canister of oxygen she had to lug around after her, attached to a wheeled trolley, limited her movements and Mary rarely felt cheerful anymore. “Gasping for breath and waiting for death” was how she described her life to her daughter.
It shocked Louise to realise that she wasn’t really sympathetic about her mother’s illness, and she didn’t feel good about the organ donation, either. How could she hope that some innocent person they didn’t even know, who happened to be the same size and blood type as Mary, should fall off a ladder or dive into a shallow pool and become ‘beating heart brain dead’? Louise couldn’t.
She remembered begging her mother to stop smoking from the time she turned 11. Every Christmas she had asked her to quit instead of giving Louise a Christmas present. Before she had gotten married, she had tried to book her mother into a health farm for three weeks. She could only afford three weeks if the rest of the family chipped in for one of the weeks – it was hideously expensive, and probably full of TV celebrities who were trying to lose weight or dry out, Lou thought when she saw the price.
But her father had flattened her hopes of finding a way to get her mother to give up smoking. “Look, Lou, send your mother to a health farm if you like. But even if she gives up smoking while she is there, she’ll take it up again.” He sighed. “I’ve been trying to get her to give up for 20 years.”
Louise knew he had. So, she dropped the health farm idea and within 3 years her mother was officially dying of a well-established lung disease.
And although it was awful watching her mother struggle to breathe, she knew that her ill-health was completely self-inflicted. It wasn’t an illness as the result of an accident, or a birth defect, or even a single misjudgement or bad decision at a critical moment. Her mother had been a heavy smoker for 40 years, and only then had her poor body given up the battle to detoxify itself after hour upon hour of poison was purposefully and irresponsibly infused into her body every day. This had been a choice Mary had made, every day of her adult life.
What sort of daughter had these feelings? Louise wondered if she really loved her mother after all. Did other people have rational feelings like this towards their mother? Who do you love more than your mother? Would she feel this way if it were her child?
At least Mary still had some mobility, and the canister of oxygen lasted an hour or two at the most so she was able to leave the house for that long. When she was at home, Mary was connected by breathing tubes which ran from her nose to a large, vibrating machine that hummed and throbbed as it generated the life-giving oxygen into Mary’s now defunct lungs.
Louise knew that being in Melbourne wasn’t the only reason Mary had chosen Louise’s home as her new base. Now that she was separated, and Jeff safely living overseas, Lou was the only one who was single, and therefore much easier to deal with than a woman with a husband. Louise had noticed that generally people visited her home more frequently than they had when she was married. A married couple was far more self-sufficient than a single woman with kids. She was deemed to be always in need of company.
But Louise’s kids were company, and she was in control. It was lovely, actually. All three of her kids were now old enough to look after themselves in many areas; yet still young enough to do as they were instructed. She didn’t require or desire another person in their household, but she could see that her mother needed her.
Louise was long past the age when she let other people organise her into doing things she didn’t want to do. Refusing to accompany her husband on his return to the United States had proven that to herself and relevant others. So, she was careful to be quite specific with her mother.
“Certainly you can move in with us,” she’d agreed when, after months of hinting, Mary had finally broached the topic with her daughter. “You can stay with us from May to August.”
Mary had not been expecting this limited invitation. “Why August?” she asked.
“Because that is when James starts his VCE exams,” Louise explained. “And your oxygen machine makes a lot of noise, 24 hours a day. We will have to position it in the kitchen, which is beside James’ bedroom, so he will have to listen to it all night long.”
“Oh, he’ll get used to it,” Mary insisted. “You don’t even hear it after a few days.”
But Louise was firm. “And, of course, it is unfair to expect Camille to share a bedroom – and a bed – with her mother. She is a teenager now and she needs her privacy.”
It was unanswerable, but Louise knew that Mary saw the August deadline as negotiable. “Well,” thought Louise, “she will discover that it is not negotiable, but we needn’t have it out now.” And Louise hated to think of it, but a lung transplant – soon – was the only alternative to her mother’s imminent demise.
Jeff called the kids every Saturday night. If they were out, he would call on Sunday, but he spoke to the kids every weekend and they saved up things to tell him.
“Nana’s coming to live with us,” Camille told him. “And I’m going to sleep in Mum’s bed with her!”
Should she have told the kids to leave this piece of information out of the weekly news round-up? But secrets were a burden. What was the point of being free from marital ties if you were going to weigh yourself down with secrets?
John the builder sent Louise a text to invite her to dinner. They’d already been to the movies together. He had taken her to see ‘The Da Vinci Code’ in a Gold Class cinema, and it had been a lot of fun. This time he was cooking her dinner at his house in Ringwood.
“I’ll pick you up at 6.30,” he offered.
“But if you pick me up, you will have to drive me home!” Louise had thought she would drive herself to his house.
“And if I pick you up and drive you home, you can have a drink with your dinner,” he explained.
Louise smiled. “That’s very thoughtful, John.
“I’m just a nice guy,” he agreed.
“But then you can’t drink!” Louise thought she had found the flaw in his plan.
“Yes, I can,” John insisted. “I can drink a standard glass every hour and still be under the limit. It’s all about weight.”
“Oh, right,” said Louise. She was still smiling.
When they arrived, Louise saw a small but charming weatherboard cottage set back from the road on a corner block. The garden was mature and well maintained, and John had strung lights through the trees. “John!” she exclaimed. “This is gorgeous! Did you do this for Christmas?”
John smiled. “I did it for you,” he said simply.
They entered the house and John proudly showed her the kitchen he had remodelled; the updated bathroom and finally, the chicken coop in the backyard. There were half a dozen Bantam hens, all asleep now, but Louise could tell by the fresh smell that that coop was clean and tidy.
“That is so lovely, John,” she said, inspecting the coop and the shrubs he had planted beside it. “My grandparents had a chicken coop and they had a lemon tree in the middle of it. It made the coop smell better. It was my job to collect the eggs whenever I visited their place, and then Nana would wash the eggs and write the date on them in pencil.”
John nodded. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “I might have to start doing that.”
He had cooked beef stroganoff and had her favourite wine – champagne – already chilled.
Louise was really touched. The champagne was kicking in and she was feeling relaxed and well fed. “How old are you, John?”
“Here it comes,” he smiled and looked at the ceiling, giving his head a slight shake.
Louise laughed. “Fair’s fair! You were at my 46th birthday party so you know my age! It’s only fair that I know yours.”
John sighed. “Why does it matter?” he asked.
“John!” Louise was insistent. “Obviously you are younger than I am. Now tell me your age!”
“I’ll be 40 next year,” he said.
“So, you are 38 now.”
John nodded and shrugged. “I guess I am,” he agreed..
“That makes you eight years younger than I am.”
“So? I’m taller than you!”
Louise laughed. “But wouldn’t you rather go out with a girl your own age, or even a couple of years younger than you are?
“If they were as nice as you I might,” he smiled at her. He kissed her. “Why does it matter so much?” John asked.
Louise sighed. “It isn’t the age difference alone,” she explained. “It’s the life stage we are each at.” She indicated their surroundings. “Look at this lovely home you have made. All it needs is a woman and a little Johnny to fill it up and play with the chickens.”
“Can’t I make a home for myself?”
“Is that what you want? To live alone?” Louise shook her head at him. “Even though I could have another baby” - Louise wasn’t giving up the whole ground -“I’ve already been through that phase of my life. I’m 5 years away from downsizing and you, my friend, are 5 years away from choosing a kindergarten.”
John nodded. “I would like a kid,” he admitted.
“And you should find a woman who is ready to have one with you!” Louise finished her drink and rose to leave. “You’d better take me home, John,” she said. “This was a lovely evening. You are a sweet man and very hunky. I feel silly though.”
“Just one more kiss?” he dragged her back to the the couch.
“Oh,” Louise weakened. “alright….”
It was Tuesday night after the Certificate IV class and they were at the Box Hill Rissole. Even the teacher, John, was there. The larger group were discussing their marks on the latest assignment, and John was looking hunted and trapped and sorry that he had agreed to join the class for this “relaxing” drink. He checked his watch and said ‘no’ to another glass of beer, while making attempts to disengage himself from yet another disgruntled adult student.
Katherine had sidelined Louise and, as soon as they had their drinks, asked her bluntly, “So, what’s your story?”
Louise blinked at her. “What do you mean?” She wondered if Katherine was asking her about her mark on the assignment but somehow knew she wasn’t.
Katherine shrugged. “Well, are you separated or divorced?”
“Are you getting divorced?”
“I suppose so.”
Louise laughed. “What ever happens? I don’t know. I don’t think my husband liked being married. I was his third wife.”
“His third!” Katherine laughed her shock.
“Yes; and I’m pretty sure that the only reason our marriage lasted 15 years instead of one was that we had the three kids to look after. He liked – likes – being a dad; just not a husband.”
“So, what happened?”
“Well, he wanted to move back to the States, but the kids and I wanted to stay here, so he moved and we stayed.”
Katherine was nonplussed. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “He really left! You didn’t have to kick him out or anything!” Katherine had had the locks changed to convince her own ex-husband that the marriage was really at an end once she’d caught him out with “the other woman”; and had struggled for a long and painful period before finally arriving at that decision; and then she’d struggled financially for an even longer period until their financial settlement was finalised.
Louise smiled. “Not with a bang but a whimper,” she said.
“So,” asked Katherine, “did he set you up financially before he left?”
Louise had expected that question. Every divorced woman over forty with a family was concerned with one another’s financial situation, and it seemed that those with professional careers were particularly concerned with this element of the marital breakdown. Watching their husband’s professional careers prosper magnified this focus; starting again in their mid-forties required forethought and planning.
“He left a couple of hundred thousand dollars in the joint account.”
“What about child support?” Katherine wanted the whole story.
“I just take what we need from that account,” answered Lou.
“Did you put it in an account in your own name?”
“No – it’s in a joint account.”
“You need to transfer the whole amount into an account in your name alone, Louise.”
“Oh, no, it will be fine,” said Louise.
But Katherine would have none of it. “Louise – stop. Listen to me. Take the money. You won’t be able to for much longer. He will move it into another account.”
“He wouldn’t,” insisted Louise.
“Louise!” Katherine was becoming quite stern. “Take the money.”
“I can’t!” wailed Lou.
“Take the money! I’m going to call you every day until you move the money. Look – if it is no big deal, it won’t matter!”
“What?” Louise was confused.
“If you are right, and it is not a big deal that the money is in a joint account, then it won’t matter if you transfer it into an account in your name alone.”
Louise thought about that. “I suppose that’s right,” she agreed.
“Do you have a mortgage?”
Louise laughed. “Yes! I have a $330,000 mortgage!”
Now it was Katherine’s turn to laugh. “So, you are working full time and he is not working at all. You have all three school aged kids to look after and he is giving you no child support. He has left you living in a 40 year old, dilapidated townhouse, with a huge mortgage, and $200,000 in the bank. How old is he?”
“Sixty,” said Louise.
“So, he is at the end of a long career, as an?”
“Investment banker,” Louise filled in the gaps.
Katherine’s eyes popped. “An investment banker! Well, we all know that he probably has a million in super and more than that in investment accounts all over the world!”
Louise began to see Katherine’s point. “Actually,” she said, “I could save $14,000 a year on mortgage interest alone if I just transferred all the money onto the mortgage.”
“Now you are talking!” Katherine sounded much happier.
“And I earn enough to live on, especially if I only had a mortgage of $130,000.”
“You shouldn’t have any mortgage, Louise!” Katherine was insistent. “You are pushing 50 and have to focus on saving up for your retirement – not paying down a mortgage. Transfer the $200,000 onto the mortgage tomorrow; then – ask him to pay off the rest. Just do it!”
“Right,” said Louise. “You’re absolutely right. That’s what I’ll do.”
Louise’s legs shook as she walked to the local branch of her bank the next day. Her breathing was fast and shallow. “What’s wrong with me?” she asked herself. “Why am I so shaken up over this? Even if Jeff gets angry, what’s he going to do? He lives on the other side of the world!” She set her handbag down and filled out the little funds transfer slip peculiar to banks. “I’m doing the sensible, responsible thing. I will save $14,000 each and every year in interest payments alone by doing this.” She signed the transfer slip, gathered up her bag and stood in the queue. Her heart was still fluttering nervously. “If I am responsible enough to raise three kids on my own, I’m responsible enough to make a financial decision with marital funds.” Louise stood up straight and braced her shoulders. “It isn’t really my money too unless I have ownership and control of it.” She gulped. “It isn’t enough to have my name on the joint account; I have to be able to spend the money if I see fit. That’s the control part.” She handed the slip to the bank officer. Louise watched the numbers being keyed into the computer, and waited while her receipt was printed and handed to her. “Thank you,” she smiled, then, to herself as she turned to leave, “Katherine.”
“Who are you going to vote for?” Louise was hosting the Friday drinks this week because Julia was at a work function. Jack had brought his adult son David over to Louise’s. The men hadn’t eaten, so Louise quickly fried a few chicken schnitzels and chips and served it to them with gravy. Her own kids demanded Mackas on Friday night and had already eaten.
“Not the other Julia, that’s for sure!” Louise was decisive in her answer.
“Really?” Jack asked, wondering if she was joking. They had previously identified each other as Labor supporters, although Louise called herself a swinging voter, having voted Liberal once and Greens once.
“Absolutely! I’m not voting for Big Ears either, though. I think I’ll do what I usually do when I can’t stomach either leader: Vote for the Sun Ripened Tomato Party.”
Louise could tell that Jack had never heard of them. She frowned. “Oh – maybe they are a Canberra phenomenon; only local government. Don’t you have the Sun-Ripened Tomato Party here in Victoria?”
“Are you serious?” David was laughing delightedly.
“You bet! We Canberrans have far greater disrespect for politicians than you Victorians; simply because we all work so closely with them. But it is a real party – in fact, I voted for them in my very first election!
“Well, why don’t we have them?” Jack looked like a boy who had just heard of bicycles but never seen one. “Anyway, I’d have thought you would be mad keen to vote in the first female Prime Minister of Australia.”
“I know – I’d have thought so, too. But I liked Kevin. I like Wayne Swan, too. I think we should have the super-profits tax. I love that they are standing up to Big Bizznezz. And I hate that Julia’s ability and ambition is being used to thwart a good, democratically elected leader in his first term. How dare they say that ‘the Labor Party’ holds office, and the Labor Party decides who shall be the leader? I voted for Kevin as much as the Labor Party! And on the previous occasions when I have not voted for the Labor Party, it was because I didn’t respect the leader they offered us.”
“So you don’t think Julia can do the job?” Jack couldn’t believe his ears. He had picked Louise as a feminist and thought she would see Kevin as a worthy sacrifice.
“Oh – I’m sure she can do the job. You or I could do the job. But I refuse to vote for anyone who thinks it is okay to usurp a first-term Prime Minister who has been democratically elected and whose only crime so far is that he and his Treasurer have stood up to the corporate bullies. She should be backing him up, not hacking him down.” Louise paused to calm herself down. “And I’m now very upset with her for staining the role of the first woman who has a real swing at being the first Australian ‘female Prime Minister’, and doing it this way. It stinks.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jack. “It does stink.”
“We have a much bigger problem that the election,” Lou continued.
“Oh?” Jack refilled their glasses. “What’s that?”
“They’ve set the election for the night of James’ 21^st.^”
“Oh, yes. And I have family and friends coming from three states for this.”
“Oh, no!” Jack was smiling at Louise with no sympathy whatsoever.
“Oh shut up!” Louise sipped her drink.
Mary settled herself into Louise’s home, and Camille’s bedroom, quickly and decisively. She made no apologies for crowding the family; and gave Camille no thanks. She insisted on making a contribution to the household.
“I want to pay you enough to cover my food and electricity,” Mary was digging around in her purse as she spoke.
Louise wasn’t sure. “It isn’t necessary, Mum,” she said. “I don’t need the money and it isn’t forever, after all.”
“No,” insisted Mary. “I pay the others the same amount when I stay with them, even for a holiday. I wouldn’t feel comfortable if I didn’t.”
Louise knew that this was true, so she agreed. “I’ll use the money to take us out to dinner once a week then,” she said. “That will make your stay fun for everyone.” Immediately she said the words, Louise hoped she hadn’t admitted that a treat was required to enjoy Mary’s prolonged stay. But Mary wasn’t offended and merely said, ungraciously, Louise thought, “It’s your money. Do whatever you like with it.”
Jack and Julia made a point of dropping by the first Friday afternoon after Mary arrived, and bringing a bottle of red wine which Jack remembered Mary enjoyed.
“So!” Jack was opening the wine as he spoke cheerily to Mary, who was sitting in the lounge room with Julia while Louise found a CD to put on. “Welcome to Blackburn! How does it feel to be in Melbourne?” Mary accepted the wine he offered her and answered him as he delivered a portion to the others.
“I like Melbourne,” Mary said. “Most of the people who moved to Canberra back in the 50’s and 60’s were from Melbourne, so the people have a very similar way.” She sipped her wine. “Even the houses look similar.”
Jack laughed. “Really?”
“Yes!” Mary laughed with Jack, and Louise was relieved to see that Mary was enjoying herself. “You don’t see so much of it around here, but Louise took me to The Glen to go shopping and all the suburbs around there could be Canberra in the 70’s!”
“The A.V.Jennings era!”
“That’s right,” said Mary.
“Oh god – A.V.Jennings – the Carlingford!” Louise laughed.
“What?” Jack didn’t follow.
Louise explained. “When I was about 10 years old, Mum and Dad decided to build a house. We had been in Canberra about two years by that time and just renting.”
Mary interrupted. “And that’s exactly what it was called: Just Renting!”
“So,” continued Louise, “we pored over all the plans of the houses on offer by various builders, and our favourite was the A.V.Jennings Carlingford. It had four bedrooms, lounge, dining AND family rooms – and an ensuite!”
“The ensuite – very 70’s!” Julia added.
“Oh – we couldn’t imagine such glamour!” And I remember that the house was $12,600, but you had to have the land already.”
Mary nodded. “And we had bought the land, but couldn’t afford $12,600 for the house, so Jim had to design one and we became owner-builders.”
“Did he?” Jack was confused. “So, who earned the income?”
“We both did,” answered Mary. “We both worked in the public service during the day. Jim was a programmer at the Dept of Treasury, and I was a stenographer at the Dept of Social Security.”
“So, when did you build the house?” asked Julia.
“We had sub-contractors do most of it,” explained Mary. She was enjoying the trip down memory lane; back three and a half decades, to when she was in her early 30’s and had a young family, a young husband, a young body and so much future. She smiled proudly. “But we did everything we possibly could on the weekends and at night.”
“That’s right – we did!” agreed Louise. “I remember putting the ceilings in. They were huge sheets of gyprock, and we had to get them up into the ceiling space and lay then over the exposed beams. Six-by-two oregon beams,” she informed her friends.
Julia laughed. “She can even remember the lingo!”
“Some things you never forget!” Louise agreed. “And we put in the door jambs, and hung the doors, and added the door handles, and cut the sea-grass matting to the right shape for the floors and painted the walls and stained the wood.”
“It really was the 70’s house, wasn’t it?” Jack was shaking his head.
“Oh yes! This was 1971.” She sighed, still smiling. “It was the best house in Davidson St,” said Mary.
“Best house in Canberra,” agreed Louise.
When everyone had gone home and Mary retired for the evening, Louise thought about the family home that her parents had built all those years ago. It really was something. Whenever she went to Canberra, she drove out to Belconnen just to take a look. It was such a large, solid house, with attractive proportions and set back from the road behind a now mature garden of silver birch trees and roses. She’d been 10 when they started building it, and 11 when they had moved in. She’d lived there till she was 22. It was the longest she had lived anywhere before or since.
Now, at 46, with three kids of her own, Louise realised how young her parents had been and how much they had achieved. They’d both had good jobs – her father had an excellent career. They had a lovely home that was admired by everyone who saw it. How had they done it? Lou herself was living in a smaller home now than the one she grew up in. Her parents had ‘bettered themselves’ in relation to their own parents, but Louise hadn’t. And although she wasn’t dissatisfied or unhappy with her situation, still it was interesting to observe that her parents had actually done pretty well, compared to both their parent’s, and their children’s, generations.
On a Saturday morning a month later, Louise was surprised to open the door and find Julia standing there, and even more surprised to see that her friend’s face was swollen and tear-stained.
“Julia!” Louise took her friends arm and pulled her into the house. “What’s the matter?”
Julia sniffed and looked around. “Where are the kids, Lou?” she asked timidly.
“Oh, they are still asleep,” she explained. “They won’t be up for hours yet.” She sat Julia down on the couch. “Shall I make us some tea?” she asked. “Or coffee?”
Julia tried to smile but more tears came. “Tea would be lovely,” she sobbed.
Louise gave her friend a hug before settling her on the couch. She handed Julia a box of tissues and left her to get the teapot, milk jug and sugar bowl and set them up on the dining table.
“Jack’s left me,” Julia said. Then she cried as though her heart was breaking.
Louise couldn’t believe her ears. She watched Julia crying and wondered what to say. “Julia, I can’t believe it!” was all she could come up with. “What happened?”
“There’s a woman at work,” Julia explained. She blew her nose and took the cup of tea Louise handed her. “He’s moved in with her.”
“Yes, well, this woman is going back to India for a couple of months apparently, and Jack is house-sitting for her, so that he doesn’t have to live with me anymore.”
“Julia!” Louise sat beside her friend and patted her shoulder. “Is it just a fling?”
“No.” Julia sounded definite. “He’s been unhappy for a while. He has been on at me to lose weight, and he said he couldn’t take it anymore.”
“He has left you because you haven’t lost weight?” Louise was so disbelieving that all she could do was repeat the words of her friend. “How much weight have you put on?”
Julia thought. “Well, since we got married, I’ve put on about 20 kilos.”
“Oh.” Louise realised that 20 kilos was a substantial amount, but after a minute of thought, she frowned indignantly. “Hold on a minute,” she said. “Let me get this straight. Jack, who is no oil painting himself, has left you for another woman because he thinks you are overweight.”
“Not just that,” Julia had stopped crying now and was drinking her tea, “he says he’s been unhappy for ages. He says I complain about my job –“
“Everyone complains about their job! It’s an international topic of conversation!”
“And he is sick of me smoking and not even trying to give up.”
“Did he ever say anything nice about you?” asked Louise pointedly.
Julia looked at Louise without saying anything, so Louise continued. “Does he ever acknowledge that you have made a beautiful, comfortable, welcoming home for him and his FOUR kids? Does he ever acknowledge that you contribute all your salary to the household that feeds and shelters these FOUR individuals for more than half the month every month? That you entertain their friends, do the drop off and pick up for them, attend school functions for them; buy them food; clothes and pay for their holidays?”
Still Julia was silent.
“I’ll bet he doesn’t,” added Louise quietly.
Louise had to acknowledge, if only to herself, that she was very sorry for herself, too. With Jack’s exit, she lost one of her most valued friends. She knew that she and Julia would remain friends, but it wouldn’t be the same. For one thing, Julia was now forlorn; nothing like the confident and vivacious wife of her beloved Jack. And besides – Louise already had lots of divorced female friends. In fact – all her current friends, with the exception of Julia, were divorced. One or two of them had boyfriends, but for the most part they were single.
It had been so nice having a married-couple set of friends. And it wasn’t as if Louise had been friends with Julia first, then befriended her husband as a sort of “ring-in”. She’d met him first, and her very soon after, so they had each been friends of very equal standing.
Their friendship had been such a big part of her life, and such a healthy, normal part of it, that she knew she would miss it. Louise was angry with Jack. What was he thinking?
The next day, there was a knock on the door just after dinner. All the kids were in their respective bedrooms, earphones inserted, computers on. Louise was sitting alone in the lounge room, contemplating whether to watch a dvd or read a book, since there was absolutely nothing worth watching on any of the television channels. She looked out the peep-hole before opening the door to Jack.
“Hello!” She opened the door and let him in. “Come in.”
“Hi,” said Jack. He smiled at her and came inside. “I just thought I’d drop in to see how things are.”
Louise indicated a chair, and closed the sliding door to the kitchen. “I assume you mean with Julia?”
“Yes. I’ve just been over there, to get a few things, but she made sure she wasn’t there. She said she isn’t ready to speak to me yet.” He shrugged.
“She’s a wreck, Jack.” Louise sat down Jack. “What’s going on?”
Jack shook his head. “I’ve been unhappy for a long time. I just don’t want to spend any more of my life like that.”
“I’m so surprised!” Louise spoke softly. “I could not tell that you were unhappy.” She shook her head in disbelief. “Is there anything I can do? Julia came to tell me, and I have tried to keep in touch with her since then, but she seems to prefer to be alone.”
Jack scoffed. “I doubt she would come to you anyway.”
Louise looked hurt. “I think we are good friends, aren’t we?”
“Of course we are,” Jack smiled at her.
“I mean Julia and myself,” Louise corrected him.
Jack shrugged. “We will have to wait and see how it all pans out,” he said. Jack looked down and said “I’ve really enjoyed our friendship, since you moved in here. I was hoping that we, you and I,” he looked at her but didn’t finish his sentence.
Louise looked at him and listened, expecting him to ask that she remain his friend, too; and prepared to assure him that she would.
“I’ve always been very attracted to you,” Jack finished.
Louise blinked, and laughed nervously, trying to make light of the idea. “What?” Seeing that Jack was going to wait for her to reply, she said, “Well, I hope you didn’t tell Julia that!”
“I had to. She already knew anyway.”
“You can’t help these things, Louise. And I thought you might feel the same.”
By now they were both sitting on the couch. Louise was rubbing her forehead. “Jack, even if I did feel the same way, I wouldn’t act on that feeling.”
“Why not?” Jack looked puzzled. “Life’s too short to waste good opportunities.”
“Yes, life is short; but friends are essential to happiness. And happiness is so fragile. I couldn’t be happy knowing my happiness was the direct result of my friend’s misery – could you?”
Jack shrugged. “You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs,” he said with a grin.
Louise sighed. How could she explain to Jack that her image of herself as a good friend and neighbour was more important to her than her romantic life? That in order to demand that her children behave morally and sensitively, she must also behave well – particularly in something so public and so confronting?
But was she tempted?
She shrank from the knowledge that she was. Never in her life had she been allowed to fall into the arms of a man – someone who stood and waited for her when life became overwhelming and when she cried out for assistance. She thought about her past.
She remembered having a car accident and being bedridden for months afterwards. She had become a nuisance to her parents and, in a new city, had been overlooked by her one male friend. It had taken time to rebuild her health and her life, and only then had she been able to reclaim any sort of social life.
She remembered other occasions, too, when she had had to make many of the toughest decisions of her life. At those times she had invariably been alone.
Was it only in novels and films that the heroine’s needs were met by a desirable and available man? Certainly in Louise’s life, there was no indication that real-life offered anything – or anyone – like that.
Or was it just Louise whose life-path was singular?
“Jack!” She finally answered his unspoken question. “Don’t you care about Julia’s feelings at all?”
“Of course I do,” he said, “but we aren’t in love anymore.”
“I think Julia’s still in love,” Louise insisted. She could see that Jack was annoyed that his offer was being sidelined, and that Julia’s name was coming up all the time. Louise fought down her own confused feeling to say something she hoped would make sense. “Look, Jack, even if we were to start seeing each other as more than friends,” Louise looked away to avoid Jack’s smile, “we couldn’t do that for at least a year-“
“A year?” Jack sat back, the smile gone from his face.
“At least,” repeated Louise. “And only then if Julia has by that time found another love. If she is still single, we would have to wait two years.”
“Two years!” Jack was laughing at her. “Who says?”
Louise shrugged. “It’s the code, Jack. It is what differentiates us from the intelligent primates of the jungle. No matter how we feel about each other, we cannot begin a relationship based on the destruction of a good woman’s life – Julia’s life. What has she done to deserve being betrayed by her husband and her close friend – who also happens to be her next-door neighbour? We would be destroying her marriage; her neighbourly relations, and therefore her home life; and taking away one of her closest friends. Who could do that? I couldn’t.”
“So what am I supposed to do in the meantime?”
Louise smiled at him. “If I was you, I’d be trying to clean up the mess you’ve created.”
Jack sighed. “Yeah, no one’s happy with me. The kids are furious. I’ve got nowhere to live.”
“What was your plan there?” Louise was curious beyond the romantic implications. She knew that Jack, despite being a high earner, was financially depleted after his first divorce and the annual child support for his four children. She also knew that Julia’s income had supplemented his life in no small part during their five-year marriage; and that his portion of ownership of their townhouse was in dispute since Julia had provided most of the down-payment and more than half of the mortgage repayments.
But Jack shrugged. “I suppose I thought we’d figure something out,” he said.
Louise couldn’t speak. Had things changed so much that she had to explain to Jack that nothing would be further from her mind than “starting again” financially at the age of 50? Did Jack not realise that a mortgage took 30 years to repay and that he had barely ten years of working life remaining? Was it only accountants who thought about these things? Did Jack really think that he would be a prime of lifer, what the accountants and actuaries called anyone aged between 25 and 55, forever? Jack was already in his fifties – had he no idea that his working days were already numbered, and his promotional prospects already severely inhibited by his age? Did he not know that the universities were producing more and better trained graduates of every discipline every year, young professionals who would be nudging him out of his current role, if not devising new ways to solve the problems he currently solved and therefore rendering him redundant?
Was it only professional women who were painfully aware of this perennial surge of natural forces, and this manifestation of glorious youth and its impact on the career of the middle-aged professional?
She spoke gently, as to a child. She reached over and touched her friend’s arm. “Jack, the most you can hope for is to calm your family down, and help them through his time. Perhaps one day you will meet someone else who has also torn away from their life, and-”
“That’s you!” Jack smiled at her. “You walked out of a bad marriage. You walked away from financial comfort, and started again.”
Louise stopped. He was right. Then she shook her head. “But it was different for me. Jeff was going and I stayed. I didn’t leave him – I just refused to follow him. And I had a financial plan. I already had assets – I already had a rental property I’d bought before I got married, to use as collateral on this place.” She gestured to the townhouse they sat in. “And while Jeff went ahead and moved, knowing I would not follow him, I didn’t disrupt the kids or do anything to actively break our family. Jeff did that.”
“How convenient for you,” said Jack.
“Yes,” agreed Louise. “It was.”
But Jack would not be deterred from the original topic. He sat back and looked at her. “So the answer is no?”
Louise sighed. She had been hoping to avoid an out and out rejection. She liked Jack. And yes, she found him attractive. Despite being over-tall and over-bald and wearing think glasses, he was otherwise in good shape and he was great company. Intelligent, friendly, even sexy in a quiet way, Louise could have been attracted to Jack under different circumstances.
But in this situation, there was something stopping her. Louise knew that she could never brush away the memory of Julia crying, open-mouthed, at the thought of losing her husband. If it meant being single for the rest of her life – and it probably did, she had to admit – Louise knew that she could not walk off on the arm of her friend’s husband as though it was a decent way for a 50 year old woman, and mother of three young people, to behave. She would be the husband thief; the home wrecker. She would have to move – and to what?
Louise looked at Jack and saw a different man to the one who had presided over so many social gatherings in his comfortable home, beside Julia, his wife. She saw the other Jack. This one had been married a couple of times already; was laden with debt; was completely reliant on his job for income; only had a car because his employer provided him with one; and, given his track record, might tire of her after five years, which was how long it had taken for him to tire of his last wife, Julia.
And Julia had handed over all her income to him, and had no children herself. Louise would never hand her income over to any man; and she had her own family to rear. She had absolutely no intention of assisting in the raising of Jack’s remaining three children – all of whom she liked well enough, but not nearly enough to live with.
Suddenly Louise had to confront something she had only been slightly aware of about herself. There were elements of the romantic relationship which she clearly saw as “wealth transfer” arrangements. Her own marriage had been a wealth-transfer arrangement. Jeff had transferred some of his wealth to Louise and their offspring, and Louise had provided the family life and stayed slim. That was the unwritten deal. And when the marriage had ended, Louise had withdrawn the family and Jeff had withdrawn the wealth. Neither of them was surprised; and neither of them had harangued the other. It was understood that this was what would occur.
What Jack was suggesting was an opportunity to divest herself of assets carefully collected and protected over long years of work and self-denial. And there was only one answer Louise could give.
“It’s a no,” she agreed.
It was July 2009 and Louise was at Diana’s, at their regular book club meeting. She finally answered her mobile because it had rung incessantly and Louise thought that one of the kids couldn’t find the Milo or something. She answered the phone impatiently.
“Louise, it’s Jane.”
“Hi Jane, can I call you back? I’m at book club.”
“Sorry, no.” Jane sounded very definite. “It’s urgent. Have you heard the news?”
Louise left the living room where a dozen women had gathered to discuss Tim Winton’s latest book, and listened to her sister. “No,” she said. “What is it?”
“Are you sitting down?” Jane asked.
Louise sat on a kitchen stool. “Yes,” she said. “Tell me.”
“Craig Senger has been killed.”
“It’s on the news. He was at the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and he was blown up today by a terrorist, a suicide bomber.”
“Oh my God,” said Louise. “I’ll go straight home and call you back.”
“Okay,” said Jane.
Louise excused herself and ran the 3 blocks to her house. She hurried inside and turned on the television. She called the kids into the lounge room and explained what had happened.
Louise had first met Craig when she was pregnant with James. Actually, his sister Cate had babysat James and on occasion Craig had, too. He had been about 15 years old then. Craig had taken James to see ‘The Lion King’ when it first came out in 1992. He had finished school; done his degree; and gotten a job at Austrade. He had married his best friend’s sister and was working in Indonesia. Now he had been killed by a complete stranger who had never met him and who was upset about something that Craig had no involvement in; and no control over.
And Craig’s father had died suddenly just a few months before. How would his mother Joan– and Cate – cope?
Louise tried to call Cate but all their phones were engaged for days. “It is so frustrating being so far away when something like this happens,” she complained to Jane.
“Don’t worry,” said Jane. “I’ll go over to see them and take them some food. And I’ll send flowers from both of us.”
“Thanks Jane,” said Lou helplessly. “I can’t even come up – I have no one to look after the kids for me here in Melbourne.”
“Couldn’t James watch them? He’s old enough,” said Jane reasonably.
Louise scoffed. “Unfortunately the ongoing battle for supremacy between James and Camille makes that impossible.”
“Can’t you send them to stay with friends for a night?” Louise could sense that Jane thought it was important that everyone gather around Craig’s mother and sister.
“Jane, I wish I could.” Louise was miserable. “But they are still rattled about Jeff leaving. I really can’t.” Louise frowned and made a decision. “I’ll fly up for an afternoon.”
When she had finally gotten through on the phone to Cate, they had both burst into tears and not spoken much at all.
“I’m so sorry,” said Louise finally. “I want to help but this is so awful. There is no help.”
“I know,” said Cate. “Crying is the only sensible thing to do.”
Louise sat with Jane and Cate and Joan in Joan’s little kitchenette. They had eaten a meal that Jane had brought with her, and Joan was refilling their glasses with wine. Joan had arranged some photos of Craig around the lounge room, and it was oddly comforting to see his lovely face looking so well and normal as they discussed their feelings. They didn’t discuss the event though. Everyone knew that Craig’s young wife had been called upon to identify her husband’s remains after the bombing. It didn’t bear thinking about.
“Everyone has been so kind to me,” Joan was smiling. “I have not had to cook a meal since it happened.”
Cate nodded her head. “I’ve taken a year off work,” she stated simply.
Louise was surprised. Cate was a very senior accountant at one of the major federal government departments. Then Lou realised that she had been with Cate and Joan for almost 3 hours and had never seen either of them without tears in their eyes; or the strained expression of someone who is reminding themselves that there are other people present, and that they must hide their true feelings. Their hearts were broken. Cate might show up at the office but she would not be able to engage her mind in her work. Her mind needed to heal as well as her heart.
“Good girl,” said Louise.
Joan nodded too. “It was the only way,” she explained, looking fondly at her beautiful girl. Joan had worked hard her whole life. She had married Andrew in her early twenties, after becoming a Registered Nurse. Shortly after Cate and Craig were born, Andrew had developed bone cancer and had been bedridden for many months while he recuperated from the invasive cure. Joan had worked night shifts and must have survived on four hours sleep a night most nights for years. But Cate and Craig had grown into attractive, hard-working, intelligent people – the sort of kids all parents dreamed of having but most didn’t achieve. And Joan and Andrew asked for nothing more from life. When Cate married, Andrew had stated that it “was the best wedding I have ever been to”. It was the best wedding anyone had ever been to. Cate was beautiful. Her husband was an educated, handsome young man –and they were both professionally qualified and employed.
When Andrew had died unexpectedly, the family had been distraught; but given his long history of survival against the odds, not overwhelmed with shock as well as loss. But losing Craig was different. Losing Craig was just wrong.
It had been two weeks since Julia and Jack had split up, and Louise had barely seen Julia. She didn’t know whether Julia wanted to be alone, or was incapable of reaching out but badly needed company. She wanted to support her friend but didn’t want to intrude if she wasn’t wanted, or in case Julia resented her after Jack’s thoughtless confession. It was a tricky situation.
In the end, she “ambushed” Julia as she walked past Louise’s townhouse one afternoon, which she had to do twice a day to go to, and return, from work.
“Julia!” she said with a smile. “How are you? Can you drop in for a coffee?”
Julia smiled at her weakly and adjusted her direction so that she could come into Louise’s house.
“I’ll just put the kettle on,” said Louise.
Julia stopped inside the door, unable to stop the flow of tears. She looked at Louise. “I can’t do this,” she said, and retraced her steps out the door.
But Louise wasn’t going to let her go. She followed Julia to her own house, and when she slammed the door so that Louise couldn’t follow, Louise went around the back and let herself in by the backdoor, which was never locked. Julia was in the kitchen, drying her eyes.
“Has Jack been to see you yet?” she asked.
Louise looked surprised. “He dropped in a week ago, the day he came to get some things from here. He didn’t stay long.”
Julia nodded. “He’s probably waiting for the dust to settle. Did he tell you?”
“I already knew,” said Louise, then, seeing that her reply was distressing Julia, added “that you two were having problems. You had already told me.”
Julia shook her head. “Did he tell you that he wants to be with you? That that’s why he left me?”
Louise was lost for words. Julia smirked at her and nodded her head. “If he hasn’t yet, he will soon.”
“Julia, you have to know that I am not about to start a relationship with your husband. Not now, not ever.”
Julia shrugged. “He can be pretty persuasive, and you two get along well.”
“Julia!” Louise was becoming upset herself. “I know how hurt you are, but please! I’d better go.” And she left.
The years passed and the kids grew taller. Louise would soon be 50, and James 21. Predictably, Stephanie had dumped James a few months before his own VCE exams, expecting that she would meet more and better young men from richer families as an undergraduate medical student at Monash University.
When it turned out that all she met were other hot-house flower progeny, Steph tried to return to James; but he was wary of her now and his heart had healed hard. He was polite but would not be drawn back, and she finally stopped calling and, resigned to her fate, learned Mandarin in her spare time.
James was a lovely boy, but a bit absent-minded. Louise had despaired of him, and when he was applying to Melbourne University, had joked with him about his inability to organise himself.
“James, I want to discuss something with you.” Louise was in James’ bedroom and surreptitiously tidying as she spoke.
James turned from his computer, rolling back his swivel chair so that he faced his mother. “Sure, Mum,” he said. “What is it?” He glanced longingly at the computer screen.
“It will take a few minutes, so could you please turn that off?” She was still speaking in a friendly tome but the threat was evident.
James sighed and turned off the screen. “Okay, what is it?”
Louise decided to ignore his tone, which said “Here we go; but if I don’t put up with you, it will just take longer, so I might as well get this conversation over with – even though it will be of no use or benefit to me.” She looked at James and spoke softly.
“James, you are about to start university. The first year at university is not especially hard –“
“If you are studying arts,” James smiled.
Louise smirked at him. Her undergraduate degree was arts and James was enrolling in science, so she fully understood his slight.
But Louise was not to be diverted and she continued valiantly.
“There are one or two things young people should understand in order to make the most of all the opportunities offered to them.”
James rolled his eyes. “I know, Mum; I’ll work hard and pass everything.” He was bored already.
“No, Mr Smarty Pants – that’s not what I mean. I wanted to tell you that this is the start of the magic 5 years.”
“What?” Finally she had his attention.
“From the age of 18 to the age of 23, almost everyone you will meet in your age group will be single. Added to that, you will be at university – an environment catering almost exclusively to people aged 18 to 23 who are single.”
“So! This is the best opportunity you will ever have to find Miss Right!”
James chuckled. “Mum, I plan to find lots and lots of women.”
“I know you do, James. And that is fine, so long as you don’t forget to get one for yourself. Don’t spend so much time window-shopping that you miss the big sale.”
“What are you talking about, Mum?” James was interested and confused.
Louise settled herself on the end of James’ bed. “When I was at uni, I had so many men interested in me that I thought it would last forever; that I had all the time in the world, and I was in no hurry to choose. Then – I hit 24 – and without my realising it, everyone else had pretty much settled on someone and I was the only single person left! After that age, even when I did meet someone, it turned out he already had a special girl tucked away somewhere.
“Really?” James was disbelieving.
“Really,” Louise nodded. “If I had my time over, I would have taken more care to select a single guy from all the nice ones I met at uni when I was an undergraduate. That is where most happily married couples met each other. Some people meet at work, but if you are in a profession that attracts mostly guys –“
“-like engineering,” added James, who was aiming to become an engineer.
“-like engineering, that may not be a profitable strategy. This is the prime time for you to find a partner. And you, my boy, need a good woman.”
James smiled at her sheepishly. “Oh, I do, do I?”
“Yes, you do!” Louise was serious. “I have coddled you your whole life. All you have ever had to do is take the odd shower and eat what I put in front of you.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“That is exactly my point! You need to find a beautiful, kind, intelligent girl who likes to cook and who loves you and who you enjoy being with; and university is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet local women of your own age who are intelligent and ambitious and hardworking and single – and who want to meet a young man! It’s natural! I just don’t want you to be one of those people who don’t seem to realise that this is just a window of opportunity – it won’t last forever.”
“Like me,” admitted Louise. “Good fortune is making the most of the opportunities you come across. This is one of those golden opportunities.”
James must have listened in between rolling his eyes because no sooner had he begun engineering than the lovely Kim had appeared in their home. And she could cook.
James’ 21st was coming up and he clearly wanted to have a ‘function’. Louise dared to suggest a party at home, and he shook his head at her.
“Mum,” James looked at her enquiringly. “Remember when you bought this townhouse? You said that we would spend the money we saved by not buying a bigger house on having our functions in restaurants and hotels. Remember?”
She had said that – and meant it. “But James – this is such a great party house!”
James shook his head. “You really don’t want to have a party here,” he said. “For one thing, whenever there is a party at someone’s home, everyone sleeps over and stay for days.”
“I know that!” laughed Louise. “Your friends do that already!”
“I really want to have the party at a bar in town.”
“Oh?” Louise thought about it. “Actually, that would be really nice, wouldn’t it?” She was urged on by the light in James’ eyes. “Okay then, we’d better start looking.”
“Thanks Mum!” James was very happy.
“I’ll have to get a few quotes, James,” Louise warned him. “It may be too expensive.”
“We’ll manage!” James was confident.
Louise smiled and shook her head. She was looking at the calendar. “Oh, by the way James, did you realise that your birthday is on election day?”
“Saturday August 21st 2010 is the date set for the federal election!”
“Sweet!” James’ smile was broad. “I can see the invitations now: Labor Party; Liberal Party; David’s 21st Party: The choice is obvious!”
Louise smiled back at him. “Not bad!” she said.
James stood in the bar of Young & Jackson’s first floor function room and smiled at his mother. “This is where I want to have my 21st Mum,” he said decisively.
Louise loved the place, too; and Young & Jackson’s did have many advantages as a venue for a 21st.
“Well, “ she said, “it is a lot more expensive than the other places we have looked at.
“And there is a reason for that,” countered James. “This is better, so that’s why they charge more.” He shrugged as though it was an elementary deduction and only a fool would expect anything different.
Louise shook her head, smiling at her son’s air of superiority. “I always find it amusing that it is so easy to justify the expense when someone else is paying,” she said.
But James was admiring the painting of Chloe. “Can we get this onto the invitations too?” he asked.
They were overheard by the functions organiser. “Yes,” she said. “I’ll send you the link if you want to include it in your own invitation; or we can provide you with invitations which you can send out.” And she handed Louise a folder. “Here is a package that explains our function set-up. You can choose whichever options you want.”
They settled into a discussion of D.J.’s and dance floors, finger foods and bar tabs. It was going to be big.
And on the night they celebrated James’ 21st, Julia Gillard was voted in as the first woman Prime Minister of Australia. It was a clear, fresh night; and from the wrap-around corner windows of Chloe’s bar in Young & Jackson’s which was adjacent to Federation Square, where their party was in full swing, they could see people celebrating her victory.
“So Melbourne!” Louise clinked her glass against James’. “You were right about this place, James.” She indicated the beautiful corner lounge, with its leather couches and wooden dance floor, the famous painting “Chloe”, and the panoramic view of the city’s night lights. “It’s brilliant, especially tonight. Imagine – we have a woman Prime Minister! I feel sorry for people anywhere else tonight. Melbourne is the place to be.”
James nodded, looking from his party room out onto the victory celebration in Federation Square. “Awesome,” he said, smiling a little drunkenly and so broadly that he couldn’t have said much else, Louise thought.
From the tone in her daughter’s voice, Louise knew that Camille was going to make a raucous complaint against one or both of her brothers. It was definitely her “I’ve put up with this for as long as I can and now I won’t tolerate it for another minute” voice; more of a long, shouted tone than a screech, but the emotion was the same.
Fifteen. Camille was so beautiful. So blond and slender and tall. She had a milk and roses complexion, and soft blue eyes, and the most adorable lisp. But she was still fifteen.
In direct confrontation to their sister’s difficult age, her brothers were 14 and 21. At 14, Peter was entering the stage where he would detach himself from the apron strings his mother dared to drape around her youngest child. Peter, whose young face seemed to be stuck in a constant scowl, found the figurative rusty axe and hacked at these strings with his hurtful words and dismissive actions.
James, who was 21 and therefore the man of the house, had been suspicious of his sister from the time of her arrival when she had abruptly ended his 6 year reign as only beloved child and catapulted him, unprepared, into the far less glamorous role of older brother. Peter simply had no time for Camille but James needed to show his mother that Camille was wrong. Every day and in every way.
“What is it?” Lou tried to sound calm and sweet, but firm; and expecting a sensible answer too. Could she imbue three small words with so much meaning? Was that even possible?
“Peter is kicking the wall in his room,” Camille’s voice remained strident, “and James is sitting on his head!”
Camille knew – everyone knew – that she had pressed the Magic Button. The walls had just been repainted and Louise guarded them like a gardener cherishes a prize bloom.
“JAMES!” she roared as she took the stairs two at a time.
“Lulu!” It was Rachel on the phone – Louise’s old friend, who had also grown up in Canberra, and moved to Melbourne with her husband and three kids; then gotten divorced. Louise and Rachel had been friends for 20 years but this was the first time they had lived in the same city in more than a decade.
Louise thought it was great to have a friend in Melbourne who had the same home-town as she. Rachel’s girls were a lot younger than Louise’s kids, but Camille babysat, so that worked, too.
“I’ve got tickets to the Melbourne Food Festival! Wanna come?”
That was the other thing Louise loved about Rachel. Sure – they were both single parents. Sure – they both had bills to pay. But every now and then, you had to live a little. Louise had lots of friends who took their families overseas every other year; and always had money to go out with a boyfriend – but when it came to socialising with women friends, the cry went up: ‘I don’t have the money; I can’t afford it!’ Rachel was one of the few woman Louise knew who delighted in treating herself – just twice a year – to some fun social event with a woman friend that actually cost more than a pizza. But like Louise, Rachel had already been around the world, and around Australia; and, like Louise, her parents had taken her out to nice restaurants and other places while she was growing up, rather than making them live on beans on toast all year so they could have 3 weeks overseas where they would have to eat beans on toast when they got there!
And both women agreed: people from all over the country, and the world, saved up to come to Melbourne. Why not enjoy what this marvellous city had to offer, rather than rushing off with 3 kids in tow (who would rather be playing a computer game anyway) to sit for hours in foreign airports hoping that the hotel you had booked online really was clean and comfortable. And people from everywhere lived in Melbourne! Melbournians had parents born in China, Europe, Israel, Chile, Africa – you name it. And they all had restaurants around town.
But Rachel had already set her sights on a modern restaurant in St Kilda. She called Louise to give her the details.
“Do you need a babysitter?” asked Louise.
“No, thanks,” answered Rachel. “Rob is going to take the girls to his sister’s place for the weekend, so they can see their cousins.”
“Can I bring Camille, then?” Louise didn’t want to detract from the ‘adult time’ aspect of the lunch, but Camille was 15 and old enough to enjoy a good restaurant.
“Sure,” said Rachel. “I’ll book for three.” Then she added “I need your financial advice.”
“Oh?” Louise was interested.
“I’ll tell you all about it over lunch.”
So, Camille and Louise had gotten the train from Laburnum Station to Flinder’s Street, where Rachel was waiting for them, and then they all got the tram to St Kilda. It stopped right outside the restaurant. “Perfect!” said Louise. “I can have a glass of wine with lunch and not have to worry!”
“It’s great, isn’t it?” agreed Rachel. Back in Canberra, the only public transport was buses which ran irregularly on the weekends. “One of the many things I love about Melbourne is its public transport system.”
“Me, too,” agreed Louise. “It’s hard to believe that Sydney and Brisbane had trams – but ripped them out in the 70’s!”
“Probably because that’s when women started to drive.” Rachel said. “And back then petrol was so cheap, so I suppose the city planners thought they could cut costs since more people had their own transport.”
“And earn money from charging us to park. Public transport is a huge cost to governments, which is why they hate spending money on it. The only reason we have any trains at all is because the train lines were built before the general population got cars. Look at where all the train lines go to – only to the suburbs built before 1950.”
“But we pay the taxes, so the government should be building more train tracks for us. It’s our money!” Rachel was strident.
“I’m just grateful we have the trains at all. The trams in the city are great, too. They really ‘make’ Melbourne now. I mean – you can get the train into town from virtually anywhere in the state – and once you are here, you have the trams to get you around the city. Even to the beach!”
It was true. St Kilda was on a very pretty stretch of beach which gave the suburb a unique holiday-maker charm, so similar to Brighton in England. Port Phillip Bay was protected by headlands so that no surf made its way to the beach, but this lack of surf and the resultant calmer beaches merely accentuated the ‘grande dame’ element of the gorgeous old city.
It was easy to see that the original city of Melbourne had been built during a period of sustained wealth. The government buildings of that time still dominated the cityscape; large, imposing and solid. The neighbouring modern insertions might tower above them but it was like standing a long-legged sprinter beside Napoleon: Height is no substitute for power, and the glassy skyscrapers looked insubstantial beside the older, stony edifices.
The restaurant was on Fitzroy St, and overlooked Albert Park. They made their selections from the menu and spent the next couple of hours eating, chatting and laughing. Each course was delicious and wine was included so it was a relaxing lunch for the two adult women. Camille had a cranberry mocktail and the young waitress who served them sported a fantastic tattoo which she was happy to show off.
Her name was Naomi and she was from New Zealand. “First, they do the blue outline,” she explained, showing Camille the full tattoo of a beautiful genie which extended down the length of her arm. “Next, they add detail in different shades, and the red goes on last.” It was a very pretty tattoo and clearly represented an investment of time and money for Naomi.
When Naomi had moved away from their table, Camille leaned in to speak to her mother quietly. “You’re not considering getting a tattoo, are you, Mum?” she asked.
Louise was surprised by the question. “Of course not, Camille!”
“It’s just that you were so interested,” she explained.
Louise shook her head, smiling. “I see so many kids Naomi’s age where I teach, with tattoos just like that, and I know that the kids who get them love attention – otherwise they wouldn’t do it,” she explained. “Tattoos are very eye-catching, and you can’t help but look at them, so why not do it out in the open? Otherwise you are trying to sneak a look and it can be embarrassing.”
“Do you look at the tattoos your students have?” Camille was disbelieving.
“Of course!” said Louise. “As soon as one of my students gets a new tattoo, I spend the first five minutes of that class talking about it with them in front of the class.”
“What if it is in a place you can’t see?”
Louise laughed. “That never happens,” she said. “If it is on their hip, they wear low-slung jeans. If it is on their chest, they wear low-cut shirts. If it is on their arm, they wear rolled up sleeves and if it is on their stomach they were midriff tops. People who get tattoos always make sure you can see them – otherwise what would be the point?”
Camille laughed. “You’re right!” And Naomi appeared at that moment with their next course, so the girls changed the topic of conversation.
The food was delicious and they were quiet as they ate. Then Louise turned to Rachel. “OK, I’ve been kept in suspense for long enough. Why do you need financial advice?”
Rachel nodded and patted at her mouth with the napkin. “OK.” She swallowed her food and became serious. “I’ve been applying for a mortgage and none of the banks will lend me any money. I was hoping you could tell me where I should go.”
Louise nodded thoughtfully. “Do you still have the $30,000 deposit you told me you had saved from the divorce settlement?”
“Good. What the bank wants to know is that you can pay them back. Can you get a letter from someone saying you have worked for them for at least 6 months?”
“Yes. I have been working for 6 months, part-time.”
“Leave out the ‘part-time’ part. Just get a letter, on office letterhead, signed by your employer, saying that you have worked there. They will assume it is a full-time position.”
“But I wouldn’t want to lie,” Rachel was frowning.
Louise shrugged. “Do you want to be godmother to the bank manager’s first born child or do you want to be a home owner? You have to decide that right away. If you want to buy a home for your three daughters and yourself, I can tell you how to get a mortgage. And I wouldn’t think of it as lying; it’s more of a ‘helping them make the right decision’ thing.”
Rachel blinked. Louise continued.
“Look, Rachel, the sad fact is that there is no bank on Earth that wants to lend money to a single mother with three young kids who does not have a full-time, well-paid job. That’s just the way it is. So what you have to do, is decide if that is fine with you, or not. If not, then you have to take control of the situation. Have you ever had an unpaid debt?”
“No, of course not.”
“That’s what I thought. Can you repay a mortgage?”
“Sure. From my wages, my pension and the child support, I can afford to repay $300 a week. In fact, the rent we pay now is more than that, and we get rent relief.”
“Well, you won’t get rent relief for a mortgage. And the bank will not take child support into account because they know all too well that many non-custodial parents avoid paying child support altogether.”
“I’m just telling you that the bank will deduct the child support from your income. So here is what you have to do:-“ and Louise counted the items off on her fingers. “One: Open a new bank account in your maiden name. Ask your mother to lend you $50,000 for 3 months, and put it into that account along with the $30,000 you already have. Two: Work full-time for three months and get your salary paid into that account. Your child-support will continue to go into your old account, under your married name, and the bank will have no knowledge of it.”
Louise took a sip of her wine, and watched Rachel write down the points she had made.
“Go on,” said Rachel.
“Three: Do not, under any circumstances, mention that you have children. The bank will deduct $8,000 for each child, so $24,000 from your available income if you do. Do not mention that you were married, or they will worry about debts Rob may have accumulated that you might be liable for.”
“You are kidding!”
“I’m quite, quite serious. This is what accountants do, Rachel – if I was the lending officer, I’d do it too!” Lou laughed. “I’m giving you all the inside-oil!”
“Shit!” Rachel shook her head. “No wonder I couldn’t get a loan!”
“No one helps single women older than 30, Rachel; and especially not older than 40 with three kids. We have to stick together!” And they clinked their glasses.
After lunch, as the three women tottered out the door and towards the tram stop, Rachel stopped them. “I can’t go home yet!” she announced.
“Why not?” asked Louise.
“Because this is the first day Rob has taken the girls in three weeks and I want to enjoy it!”
“Well, I need to go for a gentle walk anyway,” said Louise. “I’ve just consumed a week’s worth of calories and if I don’t walk some of them off I won’t be able to sleep tonight.”
So, they ambled down Fitzroy St, towards the esplanade. They were passing various shops and Rachel stopped them again at one of these.
“Can we go in here?” she asked. “It is a vintage retro formalwear boutique.”
“You know – a second hand evening dress shop.”
“Oh!” Louise looked at Camille, who was also eager. “Okay!”
The man who ran the shop was there to greet them. He was thin and small, with red spikey hair and Yves St Laurent glasses. “Hello ladies, I’m Clarence. We have our items categorised by period,” he explained. “And within each period, the clothes are organised by size.”
Clarence had evening clothes from the post-second world war 1940’s to the post-Vietnam war of the 1970’s. Rachel put on a dress that made her look like a Pan Am air hostess; Camille tried on a frock that made her look like Alice in Wonderland; and Louise found a full length bugle beaded gown in violet organza over violet satin. And it fitted her like a glove.
“I don’t believe it!” she said as she emerged from the dressing cubicle. “This dress actually fits me!” She was turning around in front of the mirror, watching the hundreds of glass bugle beads catch the light, and showing the dress to the others. “I don’t think I’ve ever bought a full-length dress that I didn’t have to take up!”
Clarence was admiring Louise in the dress too. “It’s a sign!” he declared. “It’s also an original Oleg Cassini evening gown, whose previous owner must have been the same size as you. And as it is clearly meant for you, I’ll take $50 off the price for you!”
Since the dress was $490, and Louise had not been shopping for a ball gown anyway, this was the inducement she needed to consider actually buying the dress. What had begun as a fun ‘dress up’ had become a serious purchase. How much wine had they had?
“Mum – are you really going to buy that dress?” Camille was seeing a different side to her normally conservative – and frugal – mother.
“It’s a perfect fit,” agreed Rachel, “but where will you wear it?”
Louise took the bag containing the quite weighty dress and faced her companions. “I’m 50 years old,” she said. “I look gorgeous in this dress. I will never be this young again and I will never have the occasion to wear a dress like this unless I create the occasion.” She paused to look at Rachel and Camille. “Rachel,” she continued, “We are going to a ball.”
Rachel was startled. “When?”
“This spring, in the usual ball season,” answered Louise. “I don’t know which one yet, but we are going to one.”
“Oh,” said Rachel. She looked at Camille, then back at Louise. “Okay.”
When Louise awoke the next morning, her first thought was of the extremely expensive purchase she had made the day before. “How drunk was I?” she wondered. Then she took the dress out of the bag in which it lay, folded in tissue paper, and sighed. “Probably drunk on the very idea that a dress as glamourous as this one would even fit me.” Louise tried the dress on again.
It was quite a heavy garment and fitted so that the weight was evenly distributed. A piece of gauzy fabric ran from the top of the bodice to a bead studded choker, with the sides cut away to reveal the shoulders, so that the choker was at once a necklace and part of the dress. It made Louise look like a film star. She shook her head at her reflection in the mirror and wondered how a dress could do that.
“I’d better get online and see which ball we will be going to,” she thought to herself.
So, with her morning coffee beside her, Lou googled “Melbourne balls”.
Louise justified the whole ‘ball’ idea by reminding herself that she and Rachel did, in fact, try to do Something Big each year. Last year it had been the Melbourne Cup, which Louise had enjoyed – but she seemed to be the only one who had been before, and therefore the only one who knew that the horses were kept well away from the revellers. Even on the single occasion that they had been invited to the Bird Cage, not a single hoof was to be seen. In fact, while the Members Stand had a nice view of the track, even the private corporate tents were kept well back from the actual racetrack, and the general public was only able to monitor the progress of the race by the clever positioning of many huge screens erected for that purpose. The race organisers rightly felt that the horses would not benefit from exposure to the public, who were here to bet, drink, and party, and not to admire horseflesh anyway.
So, a ball would make a nice change, and people knew what to expect at least!
There were balls for all occasions, community endeavours and budgets. At last Louise found one that appealed to her. “The Fashion Aid Ball, Crown Casino Melbourne.”
Louise clicked on the website and was shown photos of past balls and attendees. “Definitely the B list,” Louise thought. “Sporting heroes and a few celebrities – but no sign of Paris Hilton.” Even Louise – who lived in the suburbs; was officially “mature”; and could read an entire TV week and not recognise a single ‘celebrity – understood that this ball was not going to draw any ‘A’ list socialites.
“Good,” she thought. “We will be stars!”
She rang the number and spoke to a charming young woman named Emma. “Emma,” confided Louise, “I have a problem.”
“Oh?” Emma was surprised and polite.
“You see, I’ve bought an amazing dress and now I need to wear it somewhere fabulous.”
Emma understood. “Well, our ball is certainly fabulous,” she said.
“I can see that from your website,” agreed Louise. “But I’ve also been to one or two of these functions, and while I am happy to pay $250 for a ticket, I don’t want to arrive and find that I am sitting at one of the worst tables.”
“All the tables are the same,” Emma informed her.
“No, they aren’t really.” Louise was having none of it. “There will be a row of tables at the back of the room, against the exit doors; there will be a table up next to the toilets and there will be a table beside the kitchen.”
“Oh!” was all Emma could say.
“I want to see which seat I am buying when I pay for my ticket,” said Louise in conclusion.
“Well,” said Emma carefully, “the only way you can be allocated a certain position in the ballroom is to buy a whole table.”
“No,” said Emma, and she sounded sorry for Louise.
Louise felt compassion for her young adviser. Fancy getting a customer like Louise!
But Emma’s professional poise was unfailing. “Actually, we have never had a request like this before!” Louise could hear her as she clicked her keyboard. “Look, how about I email you the floor plan. Then you can see where you would like a table, and once you send in the $2,500, I will put your name on that table. They are all numbered. Only three have been sold so far, so you can still get one right beside the catwalk.
$2,500? $2,500! For ten seats at a ball where they wouldn’t even get to see Warney and his latest squeeze – let alone Princess Mary?
But Louise was clearly having a mid-life crisis. She examined the floor plan which had already arrived and selected Table 66, front and centre of the extended catwalk. “Would you prefer Visa or Mastercard?” was all she could say to the delightful Emma.
Louise gulped as she sent an email to her friends and relatives. “Let’s go to a ball!” She attached the Fashion Aid link and told them all it would cost $250 each per ticket, but she pointed out that this included a 4 course meal; drinks all night; dancing to a live band and a fashion parade. All the fashion magazines would be represented – Vogue amongst them. It would be their very own “Devil Wears Prada” evening.
And just to sweeten the deal, Louise decided to organise a stretch limo to take them there.
A few years before, Louise had watched on as James and his friends organised a stretch limousine to take them to their Year 12 Formal, and had wanted to jump in with them so badly that it had surprised her. “One day,” she had promised herself. This was that day!
To her immense surprise, everyone she emailed wanted to come to the ball. Her sister Jane would come from Canberra. Also from Canberra, Joan and Cate agreed to come. Then, Jane’s partner David, hearing of the big event, felt left out, so he decided to join in, too. That left only enough room for Louise, Rachel, James and Kim, Julia and Katherine.
Julia and Louise had given each other ‘space’ after Jack left, but being neighbours in the small community of townhouses broke down the distance they tried to create. The Owner’s Corporation required that they meet regularly and it had been their habit to provide a united force against the other, older and bossier members of that group. So, in this way, they had managed to distance themselves from Jack’s indiscretion, and repair the friendship. Julia was the first person Louise invited after Rachel, and Julia was the first to accept.
“Fortune favours the brave,” Louise smiled to herself. And as the ball wasn’t for another six months, she put it to the back of her mind.
The classroom was on the second floor, just one floor below the staff rooms. Louise walked in with a smile nailed to her face and took a look at the group of people assembled there. They didn’t take too much notice of her as she set up her things at the desk in front of the white board.
There were about 22 students, ranging in age from 18 to 55. About half the class were white Australians; the other half were from various Asian and African countries. She knew better than to ask them to be quiet. She knew better than to ask them for anything. She knew that to these people, she was the barrier they had to batter down and clamber over in order to achieve their goal – a pass – the key to the locked door which kept people out. Out of work; out of money; out of permanent residency status.
When Louise first began teaching, she had imagined herself helping students understand the complexities of accountancy and commercial law; and the intricacies of the professional life she had taken up as an accountant, and a CPA, more than 20 years ago. Louise knew from experience that most accountants were not good demonstrators, and they therefore found teaching a challenge. But Louise was a good communicator and enjoyed teaching, or so she thought. Her first semester at this institution had made her re-think that attitude.
But now she knew what they wanted. These students didn’t want to have a nice day. They didn’t care about the teacher or what she thought of them. They would happily cheat from each other and copy and paste anything they could find on any website and hand it in as their own work. They would pretend to be using their phone as a calculator, and email their fellow student who would quickly send them an answer which they had just googled on their phone as they sat doing the test. Then, if caught, they would get together and organise a class sheet of signatures saying that they all declared the teacher incompetent and should not be penalised because she hadn’t taught them properly.
Louise was devastated by this “enemy attack” attitude from the class. During her first semester, when told that a class had written a formal complaint against her, she had offered her resignation. Her boss, the head of Business Programs, had looked at her in disbelief. “Why?” he had asked. “You can’t just walk away. It has nothing to do with you. I have to inform you, that’s all. It is a purely administrative issue.” He rubbed his forehead and tried to explain. “Look, if they fail, they lose their permanent residency status. You are teaching them the hardest subjects – Company Accounting, Company Law and Advanced Tax Law. Submitting a complaint against you is their insurance policy.”
Louise was aghast. “Insurance policy?” she said. “Aren’t they afraid that I will become set against them and fail them for revenge?”
The boss shook his head at her. “In that case, they simply ask for a re-mark of their exam and lodge a complaint with the International Student’s Liaison Officer, and get their passes that way.”
“I see,” said Louise. “And to whom do I complain?”
“Well, they have their liaison officer – who do I have?”
“You have your pay cheque.” He stood and showed her the door, ending their brief interview. “Just carry on.”
And she had. Not easily; and not without a crushed and broken spirit, but she had made it back to teach another day. But first she had taken her problems to ‘the well’ – her own adult son.
James had listened and understood. “Mum, you have to use your power.” He was impatient with her and spoke to her as though she was a child who repeatedly made a senseless error. “You have the power in this situation and they don’t. Clearly this is about power.”
“It is supposed to be about learning.” Louise wanted him to see the situation from her perspective.
“No.” James was determined that she listen to him. “It is about power – that is why they went to your boss. Not a single student came to you.”
It was true, and that was what had hurt Louise more than anything. She had felt betrayed and humiliated that her own students went to her boss without even bothering to mention their issues to her.
James continued. “Their actions tell you that they respect power and they don’t respect you. Show them that the power is yours. If you don’t, you might as well go back to an accounting firm because you won’t last teaching at a tertiary institution.’
“It is so different though,” Louise wanted James to understand. “When I was at uni, we never even spoke to the lecturer. We listened, took notes, read books and tried to figure out the solutions to the problems. We studied past exam papers and the textbooks.”
James shook his head. “Mum,” he said gently, “firstly, you are teaching at the TAFE, not at a university; and secondly, no one cares.”
So, now she knew how to teach this class. She took her notes and started writing on the whiteboard. She wrote her name; her work email address; and her office address for internal mail. When she had finished the class was quieter. Without speaking to them she took a sheaf of papers from her briefcase and delivered one set to each student. It was the one and only time that she would walk to them. From now on they would have to come to her, when she was ready, and they would have to wait until she was ready.
“What’s this?” a student asked. Louise ignored him and continued to deliver the papers. When she had finished, she returned to her desk and took out the roll. She looked up and said to the class “My name is on the whiteboard, and on the unit outline I have just given you. Please keep the seats you now have for the rest of the semester so I can learn your names. If you don’t like your seat, change it now.”
No one moved.
“Good.” Louise called the roll and made the changes the students requested. Many of the Asian girls had adopted Anglo names so she wrote those beside their legal names. Once the roll had been completed, she addressed the class.
“Good morning. Please do not ask me any questions till you have read the unit outline because many of the answers you want are in it. Let’s go through it now.” They all studied their copy. “I keep a very accurate roll and if you arrive late or leave early I note the exact times you arrive and leave each lesson. For many of you, missing more than 10% of the total class time over the semester will impact not only your ability to pass this subject, but also your ability to apply for permanent residency, so my records will be called upon to verify your progress on these issues.”
Louise had their attention. “There are two tests in this subject and no assignments. I’m tired of reading the same paragraphs from cut-and-pasted documents so now we are 100% examination. You may not use a phone in either test if you do not have a calculator. If you do not own a calculator, you might want to reconsider your commitment to becoming an accountant.” Louise waited while a few of the students laughed quietly. “If you come to do a test and have forgotten your calculator, you will not be allowed to use your phone and you will fail. Being a grown-up means being prepared for foreseeable situations. Bringing a calculator to an accounting exam is such a situation and if anyone arrives at an exam I have set without a calculator, I will personally see to it that they receive a fail. To me, coming to an accounting exam without a calculator is that same thing as catching the bus naked. We don’t do it.”
“What about an emergency?” A woman student was aghast at Louise’s speech.
“An emergency?” Louise answered her. “Yes, in an emergency it is particularly important to be prepared. How would we feel if we were in the hospital, bleeding to death, and the doctor on duty didn’t have the right equipment just because he hadn’t known we were coming? No professional person would behave so irresponsibly, would they? Only a useless amateur would use a pathetic excuse like ‘they forgot’. But we are training to be professionals and we belong to an internationally respected profession. Accountants are prepared, accurate and reliable.”
The class was quiet. Louise went on. “I will take this opportunity to mention to you that I have over 20 years of professional accounting experience in various positions and I am happy to answer any questions you may have as you commence your final semester. The accounting profession offers a wide choice of interesting and rewarding roles and there is a job to suit every accountant. However, there will be some of you who will be unsuited to the lifestyle simply because you do not possess the personal qualities required of a competent accountant. While we are learning about company accounting, the accounting standards and company law this semester, I will seek to illuminate to you the various character traits required to properly discharge the duties of a company accountant.
“Accountants follow professional rules and customs and the documents they draw up become legal documents. Consequently, the accountant is in a role of great responsibility and trust.” She paused to look around the room. “As with most important roles in life, it is important to look the part if we want someone we have just met to entrust us with a well-paid, fiduciary role. This applies to all professionals. If you want to be put into a responsible role, you must look responsible. If you want to work as a pole dancer, you should dress like one. But someone who looks like an accountant will not get a job pole dancing and someone who looks like a pole dancer will not get a job as an accountant.” Louise could see from the expressions on her student’s faces that she had made her point. And they were still listening.
“Accountancy is a profession which adheres rigidly to internationally accepted rules, many of which have become laws. People who cannot follow rules should not consider becoming an accountant. We are precise, intelligent, educated, efficient professionals. We are respected for these qualities, so if you think it is stupid to be reliable or prepared, possibly a different job will suit you better. Most professions demand a set of standards from their practitioners and accounting is no different.
“So, be here on time for every class. If you are late returning from the break, don’t return and I will mark you down for half a class. Do not answer your phone in class. If I see you texting in class, I will ask you to leave. Mobile phones were not available in this country till 1994 and we all got degrees, raised kids and went to work without them up till then, so I think we can make it through a 90 minute class without referring to our Facebook page. Go to the toilet before the class. If you have a weak bladder, do not drink water during the class. What goes in must come out and I have never known anyone to die of thirst in a class of 90 minutes duration. I am a lot older than most of you, and have given birth to three large babies so if I can hold on, so can you.” Louise consulted the unit outline and opened her textbook at the appropriate page. “Now, let’s take a look at the Australian Accounting Standards, shall we?”
It was time to finish renovating the house, and only the courtyard remained to be done. From the living room, you looked from two sets of double French windows out onto the paved courtyard. The surrounding garden was lovely, but the old cement pavers were dark grey, uneven and embedded with decades of possum faeces. And now that the light fittings and blinds had been replaced with modern, minimalist styles, the grotty old grey pavers and the Italianate pillared which contained the border garden simply didn’t match.
Louise was loath to spend any more money, but the view from the living room was a reminder of the previous horror of what had existed throughout their home when they’d taken it over. Louise remembered that even as a little girl, these Italianate pillars had signified European taste which, while possibly appropriate on the Riviera, was out of place in suburban Australia. It was like trying to understand why men thought moustaches made them look masculine – there was no point in trying to understand the ridiculous. It just was.
Louise looked at the courtyard and canvassed her options. As usual, in her inimitable, methodical way, she costed out the job after collecting information from garden landscapers and paving shops. She invited people to give her quotes and was informed that it would cost $17,000 and $14,000 and $11,000 and $7,000 by various contractors.
To the man who quoted her $7,000 she said “But I can only afford $5,000.” She knew it should only cost this amount, too.
“$5,500, then, including G.S.T.,” he said.
“Great!” said Louise. “When can you start?”
“Tomorrow,” he’s replied. “See you at seven.”
And that had been that. Before the end of the week, the grey pavers were gone and a beautiful pale orange sandstone paver was in its place. The sandstone almost matched the wooden floor of the living room and the whole effect was to stretch the living room out into the courtyard.
Louise lay in her bed and stared at the ceiling. She’d just had an email from Jeff and needed to think about what it might mean. He was angry that she was happy living apart from him. He was angry that the lives of the kids just rolled along without him – as though he was inconsequential to them. She understood his hurt feelings; they were natural. And anger was Jeff’s most exercised emotion, so it was predictable that he would be angry now.
But Louise also understood that kids had to be able to cope with great change. That was their survival mechanism. Kids had no control over their own lives for so long. Their parents moved them without consultation; made changes to their lives; chose their schools, their neighbourhoods, indirectly, by choosing the neighbourhood and school, they even chose their friends – a child wouldn’t survive if they were going to get ramped up over every change inflicted on them by their parents. Jeff had moved the kids every two years for their whole lives – and now he wondered why they coped so well when he left? It was just another change.
Jeff’s email was direct and to the point. “We should give things another go, or get a divorce,” he wrote. “If you are not prepared to come over here and live in the United States, let’s lodge the divorce papers.”
Louise tried to clear her mind before even contemplating this statement. The bed was warm and embracing. Her room was airy and light. The pattern of the white painted wooden plantation blinds replicated the louvred closet doors. The whole room was painted white, and the horizontal blinds and louvres textured the whiteness without breaking it. The sand coloured carpet and sand-and-cream doona added to the soft feeling of the light room. Louise felt safe and whole and able to think clearly when she was alone in this room, lying by herself and relaxing in this bed.
Did she want to remain married to Jeff? Louise closed her eyes and concentrated on the warmth of her bed. Did she miss him? What did she like about her life now? What did she want from her future?
Louise realised with a sudden clarity that she and Jeff did not want the same future. And that really was the problem.
She hadn’t really had to think about any of this till now. Just establishing their new home and life had been a full time occupation. She forced herself to analyse her situation, past and present.
Marriage to Jeff had seemed so wonderful at first. It had been full of new and interesting experiences. More than that – it had been the fulfilment of a long held dream to have a husband and a family and a home. She’d been single for years and wanted all those things for herself. She had wanted to move into the next phase of her life, but she couldn’t do it until she met a man and got married. Then she met Jeff and he had immediately been so keen on her and so keen to marry her, she felt that the wait had been vindicated.
Louise had realised that Jeff wasn’t single because he was the kind of man everyone wanted to marry. For a start, he was 15 years older than she was. He was only 5 years younger than her mother. And he changed jobs and moved – a lot. But that was exciting to Louise. And he was a very well paid professional – all his moves were paid for by the companies he worked for; and everywhere he worked, he was a senior executive in status as well as age.
She’d coped with his moods and even his depressions. She’d concentrated on the kids, their lovely homes – wherever they might be – and made friends in each new place. But once the kids had all started school, Jeff had been resentful of her lifestyle and badgered her to return to work. Never mind that he travelled constantly; or that she had been out of her profession for over ten years, and would go back, at the age of 43, as a junior. He had been scathing in his criticism. “You contribute nothing to this family,” he had said to her after the birth of their last child. “I could pay someone four dollars an hour to do what you do.”
Louise was fairly certain that you would have to go to an isolated village in a third world country to find a housekeeper/nanny who would work for four dollars an hour looking after a large home, three small kids and a husband – and even sleep with him – but she said nothing. She just remembered.
So, to keep the peace, Louise had employed after-school babysitting, and a cleaner, and paid extra to have her groceries delivered, and went back to work. She resented it. She resented waking up every morning at 5.30 with a headache from lack of sleep. She resented running to the train and standing in it as it jolted her to work. There was nowhere to sit in the morning train – it was standing all the way. She resented the bitchy secretary who smelt of last night’s rum and coke and laughed a fake laugh every time the boss said anything, yet scowled at Louise and made sure that she removed the toilet paper so that there was never any when Louise paid a visit to the office loo.
But mostly she resented Jeff, who received a bonus each year after 35 years of uninterrupted employment, while she, who had the same number of degrees as her husband, earned much less, and still had to run home at 6pm to pick up the tired little kids, cook the dinner and tidy the house, bath the kids and feed them, read them stories and clean up after dinner, make tomorrow’s lunches including her own (Jeff often reminded her that he had lunch at the café in town near his office with the cute young waitresses) and make sure everyone had clean clothes ready for tomorrow.
She resented him because he didn’t care about her. He didn’t worry that she was tired. He never thought of doing a nice thing for her. He wouldn’t even answer the phone at work if he knew it was her calling him. She was a necessary annoyance in his life. She was just a housekeeper who the kids really, really liked.
Louise remembered the conversation they had had when she realised that Jeff not only did not love her, he simply didn’t care about her at all. He’d arrived home late after a work dinner and everyone, including Louise, had been in bed. Jeff walked into the room. “Oh, you’re still awake?” he remarked.
“Yes,” said Louise. “How was the dinner?”
“It was fantastic,” Jeff smiled. “We were at the restaurant in the Sheraton, and at the table next to ours were all the young models from Cleo magazine!” Jeff looked so happy and excited. Louise blinked. He was 55 years old, talking about girls of 20. “It made our whole night!” he said happily, removing his suit and hanging it carefully as he spoke.
Louise felt like Alice in the Brady Bunch. Poor old androgynous Alice, technically female but lacking all the desirable features of a woman. She pretended to fall asleep while Jeff preformed his protracted nightly washing ritual.
Now, lying alone in her own bed, Louise realised that she no longer loved her husband. He had scratched and torn at her love for him for so many years; he had numbed the spot in her heart where she felt sensitive to his comments. She despised his lecherous remarks on every woman he saw on television, in the movies, in the print media, on an album cover, waiting in a queue at McDonalds, waiting on their table in a restaurant. She had hardened her heart so that she wouldn’t be hurt or behave inappropriately when he told her he had been to a stripper’s bar on a recent business trip. When he told her what a prude she was; how jealous she was of younger, more attractive women; how normal he was and how boring she was. And now she had no feelings for him whatsoever. None at all. Jeff had stamped them all out dead before he had left. At least he’d had done that much for her.
So, why would he even want her to come to America to re-try their marriage? Had the two years of separation re-sparked his former love of her? Had he realised that she was a good wife and that he had left a lovely, loving family which was impossible to replace? Louise had to admit that even for her, even after everything, this was the real issue. This family was the only family for both of them. Could they reunite it so that everyone was happy?
Louise knew that she would love to be able to give up work. Her teaching job was very stressful and exhausting; and now she wanted to be able to slow down – retire; pursue other interests; take it easy; spend time looking after herself and her growing family.
But she knew that Jeff would never allow her to be a full-time housewife. He hadn’t allowed her to stay at home when their youngest was 6 and off to school – he would never entertain the thought now that Peter was 13.
Being married to Jeff was a full-time job. If she had to go out to work anyway, why stay married? It was a double burden. It wasn’t as if by returning to him she would resume any enjoyable activities which she now missed. He never wanted to spend time alone with her, except in bed, and even that had become unrewarding for her. He would rather get root canal than take her out for a meal on a Friday night. He didn’t drink, so that was out – they couldn’t even share a drink at home. He only liked to watch films about war or shows with half naked young girls, neither of which she enjoyed; and he hated the comedies and dramas she loved. Jeff had no friends outside work, and his favourite pastime was going on a lone run. She would be lonely and alone and working in another new job if she moved.
She re-read his email, and a few others he had sent since they had split. Many of them spoke of his loneliness; and his wish that they could be re-united. Not a single one spoke of his love for his wife; nor of his longing for her company. In fact, the word “love” was conspicuous by its absence.
She got out of bed and sent him an email. “You’re right,” she replied. “I’ll lodge the forms tomorrow.”
And she tucked herself back into bed and fell fast asleep.
The best place to think, Louise had discovered, was on a walk through the streets around her home. From Laburnum St, she could walk past well-maintained homes, both old and new. Some of the original homes had been knocked down and replaced with large houses with values more closely resembling the land price; while others were sufficiently grand to begin with and now only required new kitchens and bathrooms. Laurel Grove led her to Black’s Walk, along the creek bed – running now, and home to frogs and ducks; then past the Scout hall and the playground, till she found herself on Salisbury St, outside Gourmet Girl café, where diners sat inside the glass walls and out on the patio footpath in the Parisienne style. This completed the loop to Laburnum St and took about 25 minutes. You could always find 25 minutes, even in a busy day.
The gardens in general, and Black’s Walk in particular, were beautiful and fragrant in every season. Due to the houses from the earliest years of the previous century, and their neo-Georgian neighbours, travelling down the labyrinth of wooded streets became a journey into the past. This was where the artist Fred McCubbin and his wife Anne had lived a century before; and the native bushland he had so lovingly represented in his paintings was still apparent.
Many of the houses were of the between-the-wars period; but there were a few Federation homes and these reminded Louise of Brisbane. Painted wooden buildings, with ornate arts-and-craft fretwork around the entry way, they harkened back to another era in a way a brick house could not. Not many survived but those that did drew Melbourne back to its Australian roots, when wood had been the mandatory house building material. The newer homes reflected the mono-culture of architectural economy, and provided resistance to the ever-present Australian element: fire. So, red brick represented the war years, and orange brick the sixties. Brown brick with stained wood window frames and pergolas in ‘mission brown’ showed the style of the seventies, while a mixture of clinka brick and reproduction federation window frames in yellow aluminium remembered the eighties. The nineties favoured a return to Georgian squareness and sparseness, and the new millennium delivered a period of rebuilding over replacing, where exteriors were left whole while interiors were gutted and re-arranged.
Depending upon what time she chose to walk, Louise would meet her unknown neighbours or be completely alone as she wandered past a hundred homes. Before 8 am, the dog-walking women and the jogging fathers were out. After 6pm, families walked together and their dogs got to smell the twilight air. Before lunch, mothers with prams would walk their babies to the shops to post a letter or buy some flowers. It was only between 1pm to 3pm that Louise could be assured of uninterrupted solitude on her walk. All the fathers and many of the mothers were at the office; all the children were at school and the pre-schoolers and the family pets were taking their afternoon siestas. If she saw a man sitting alone on a bench in the bushland that ran beside the Laburnum Primary, she called the school office so that the principal might take the opportunity to stretch his legs.
“He doesn’t love you!” Mary was vehement and spoke with a sneer. “Don’t do it, Louise, don’t make the same mistake all over again.” She shook her head, her face contorted by a look of disgust.
Louise was shocked by her mother’s reaction, and quite sure that she would not be influenced by it. Already she doubted her mother’s ability to separate Louise’s best interests from her own. As far as Mary was concerned, Louise no longer needed a husband. She had her home, her career and her family. “Why put yourself in a situation where he can call the shots again?” Mary asked her. “You’ll just be moving around all the time again, and one day one of the kids won’t come with you. Before you know it, you’ll have no home to retire to; and three kids in three different countries.”
“I know, Mum. I’ve told him I’ll arrange our divorce.”
“I hope you do,” said Mary. As if it made any difference.
The tensions in the house were being aired daily now.
First it was James. “Mum – I have to study for my VCE exams and that oxygen machine is so noisy I can’t concentrate. It sends a vibration through the floor that rocks the whole house!”
It was true. The machine, which couldn’t be put against a wall because it required ventilation, sat away from the kitchen bench. It was the size of a garbage can and hummed like an idling car engine. The tubes which fed Mary oxygen were metres long and trailed all over the house.
“Well,” suggested Louise, trying to think of a solution, “If you swapped rooms with Peter, you’d be further away from the machine and it might not bother you. Let’s go up to Peter’s room and see.”
But James was adamant. “I’m not swapping rooms with Peter!” he protested. “I’d never get my room back.”
“True story,” Peter nodded, having overheard the conversation as he came down the stairs. “I think it’s a good idea, though.”
“Of course you do – you can’t wait to get my room.” James growled.
Peter shrugged. “Just trying to help,” he smiled.
Then there was Camille. “Mum – I want my room back!” Camille urged. “It’s been 4 months, and you snore!”
“I do not!” Louise retorted.
“You do – especially on Friday night when you come back from drinking at Julia’s.”
Louise sighed. She knew that Camille could not be expected to share a room – and bed – with her mother for ever. It was only ever meant to be a short-term arrangement, but Mary had settled in and did not seem interested in returning to Canberra.
But when you were on the organ transplant list, you just had to wait for the phone to ring. When would it be her turn?
Every month, Louise took Mary into the Royal Alfred Hospital to speak to the head surgeon on the “transplant team”, Mr Williams. He was an unassuming man of about Louise’s age; unimaginatively dressed, who wore unremarkable spectacles. His hair was both whispy and thinning, and scantily framed the kindest face Louise had ever seen.
They had been seeing him for two years now. Before moving to Melbourne, Mary had flown down from Canberra for these meetings and Louise had accompanied her to those appointments, too. Louise had sat and listened on each visit, slightly in awe of the surgery they discussed and aware that she had a lot to learn.
But this time she wanted to clarify a couple of things. “Would it be alright if I asked a few questions too this time, Mr Williams?” she asked.
The surgeon smiled encouragingly at her. “Yes, of course,” he said. “As Mary’s support person, it’s very important that you are involved at every stage.”
“Good,” said Louise, taking a notebook out of her handbag.
“Oh!” Mr Williams laughed. “She has a list!”
Mary chuckled. “Louise is very well organised,” she explained. “An accountant.”
“Ah – I see.” They spoke to each other over Louise in a friendly fashion.
“I just want to make sure I am putting all this together correctly.”
“Fine,” said Mr Williams. “Fire away!”
“Mum has been on the waiting list for two years now,” she began.
“Er, yes,” Mr Williams answered a little nervously.
“And the normal waiting period is 8 months.”
“Well, that varies,” said the doctor.
But Louise continued. “And the reason it varies is because some people are more difficult to match with a donor than others.”
“That’s right,” the doctor sounded relieved.
“And the reason that Mum is hard to match is because she has had children, and therefore is harder to match than a man, or a woman who has not had children; and because she is small, and therefore cannot fit an organ from a larger person; and because she is over 65 and is therefore immediately and forever placed below anyone younger who might need an organ that could have gone to Mum.”
“Well, I think –“
Louise could see that her summary had embarrassed the doctor. “I’m not being critical, Mr Williams,” she assured him, “but Mum and I and the family are at a point where we have to make some decisions, and I think we will make a better decision if we have realistic expectations about Mum’s immediate future.” Louise paused to make sure that she was communicating clearly, and not being too brusque. “The other thing that is impacting Mum’s slide down the waiting list, other than her age, is the increased survival rate of people born with cystic fibrosis. A few years ago, these people would not survive long enough to be eligible for lung transplants, but now they regularly do, and since they are always added to the list when they are young, they not only go in ahead of Mum because they are younger, and therefore regarded as being higher priority, but they are young enough to be as small as Mum, so they are receiving any small organ that is available and might otherwise have fitted Mum, who is a small woman. Am I right so far?”
The doctor nodded. “Pretty much,” he agreed, and cleared his throat.
Louise continued. “Added to all this, is the hospital’s mandate that only patients who are most likely to survive for five years after receiving a donated organ should be selected as transplant recipients.” Mr Williams did not interrupt her, but sat back, waiting to hear what she had to say. “Public hospitals, and transplant teams, measure the success of their organ donation surgeries on their patient’s survival rates. If a patient survives one year, or two years, or five years, the hospital and the transplant team are graded accordingly, and the program is deemed a success or otherwise.”
Mr Williams nodded. “That’s right,” he said.
“And as a person gets older, and closer to the ‘three score and ten’ natural life span quotient, they provide the hospital with a diminished return simply by being mortal.”
“Yes,” said the doctor. He tried to smile apologetically at Mary but couldn’t pull it off.
Louise looked over at her mother, who appeared to be startled by Louise’s summary of her situation. Louise knew with a pang that until that moment, Mary had really thought that the phone would ring at any moment and she would be told that her surgery had been scheduled. She saw now that, for the first time, her mother understood that this was unlikely to happen.
Louise gulped. “So, in fact, on the balance of probabilities, given all the factors I’ve just outlined and probably a few I haven’t, it would be fair to say that Mum will not receive a lung transplant.”
“We can’t say for sure,” the doctor protested.
“But on the balance of probabilities,” insisted Louise.
“Probably not,” the doctor sighed.
It was clear that Mary was annoyed with Louise. They’d wrapped up the meeting, thanking Mr Williams, and walked back to the parking lot. “Well,” said Mary, “that’s that then.”
Actually, she felt more than annoyed – she was angry. It was so typical of Louise to barge in and boss everyone around and paint the devil on the wall. Mary knew she was dying – she wasn’t completely stupid. She could barely sleep anymore, her breathing was so distressed. The oxygen was keeping her alive but it was borrowed time and Mary was more aware of the decline in her ability to stay well than Miss Bossy-Boots Louise knew.
They drove home in silence. When they arrived, Mary looked at her daughter as she manoeuvred the car into the driveway. Louise was so in control of her life. She had a career; she had a family and a home of her own. She had as much as most married couples, and seemed to think that she was normal. It infuriated Mary that Louise didn’t even acknowledge that she had so much more control over her life than most people. Mary even suspected that Louise had accepted her emphysema as a normal outcome of having smoked for 40 years, rather than the horrific and deadly condition that it truly was.
Mary spoke first. “Well, I suppose there’s no point in staying in Melbourne anymore.” Louise glanced at her mother but didn’t say anything, so Mary continued. “I might as well go back to Canberra. That’s what all this is about, isn’t it?”
Louise sighed. She turned off the car and turned to her mother. She knew she was upset and could see the bitter glint in her eyes. “Mum, what am I supposed to do?” she asked plaintively. “This house is too small for all of us. I can’t share a room with my teenage daughter forever.”
“It’s not forever,” Mary left the fact that she couldn’t live much longer unsaid.
“Come on, let’s go inside. I’ll put on the kettle.”
Once inside, the conversation resumed.
“I can’t share a room with Camille for much longer,” said Louise. “We have to work out what to do now. Once we accept that you will not be receiving a lung, what are we left with?” Louise handed Mary her tea and they sat at the dining table to continue their discussion.
“I’m left ‘gasping for breath and waiting for death’, as they say.”
But Louise was not going to be made to feel any guiltier. “Mum, my main job is to raise my kids. I work full-time to support my family; and they are all growing up. None of them will be leaving home for another decade, since they all plan to go on to tertiary education. I can’t afford to move and none of us want to move. You have a one-level house in Canberra, which is perfect for you. You have the air-conditioning all set up and are close to the Canberra hospital if you do need emergency care.”
“But I can’t manage on my own,” Mary had tears in her eyes. “I can’t drive in this condition and I’m stuck there, on my own, plugged into the wall.”
“Well, those are the issues we must deal with,” Louise sounded more confident than she felt. “You are eligible for government assistance to get any of the home services you require.” Louise sipped her tea and saw that her mother was actually listening. “And let’s face it, Mum – if we are able to make your life comfortable back in Canberra, wouldn’t you prefer that to living here, where we are so cramped, and you have to struggle up and down the stairs to your room every day?”
It was true. Mary found the journey up to her – Camille’s – room a real struggle at the end of each day. They’d considered giving her James’ room, which was on the ground floor, but as the bathroom was upstairs anyway there seemed little point.
“Well,” conceded Mary, “if I had a Blue Nurse coming by a few times a week to help me wash my hair,”
“Yes,” Louise nodded.
“And a cleaner once a week to do the house,”
“And if I could get a driver to take me to my appointments,”
“I know that they have volunteers in Canberra who drive people to their doctor’s appointments,” said Louise.
“But that still leaves the garden,” said Mary.
But Louise had seen the acceptance in her mother’s attitude and was determined to close the deal. “Well, who is looking after the garden now?”
“No one,” answered Mary. “It’s winter, so there isn’t much to do. But it is almost Spring and it will need a lot of work over the next 6 months.”
“Well,” said Louise cheerfully, “in that case, isn’t it a good thing that you will be back there to oversee it?” And she poured them both another cup of tea.
Alone in bed that night, Mary conceded that Louise had a point. She would be more comfortable in her own home. It was the loneliness that frightened her. Everyone was so busy. Jane and Michael, the only two of her five children who still lived in Canberra, were both married, with careers and families they battled to manage. Mary’s house was not far from theirs – but months could slip by without them bothering to look in on her.
But Louise had addressed that issue, too. “Take in a border,” she said. “Don’t charge them the going rate – charge them half what they would pay elsewhere; explain the situation – or let me do it. I’ll advertise on the internet and see what I find.”
“But,” Mary had argued, “Who’d want to live with an old, sick woman?” She blinked away her tears of shame at describing herself so bluntly.
Louise had softened her business-like stance, and patted her mother’s hand. “We might find a divorced or widowed woman your age who doesn’t own her own home. Or, we might meet a mature-aged student who wants to be within half an hour’s drive of the A.N.U. and can’t afford to rent in O’Connor. Or someone who wants to spend a year saving up – we won’t know till we advertise.”
Mary sank back into her pillows, trembling with fear at what the future held for her. Was this what she worked her whole life for, raising five children, paying the never-ending bills, providing years of free baby-sitting for grandchildren, lending her adult children money for mortgages and school fees and car payments and whatever else they couldn’t live without but couldn’t afford to pay for themselves? Five children – three daughters and two sons, and now, when she needed help from them, they were too busy raising their own children and telling her that she was lucky that she could retire on Dad’s pension – she was lucky!
Mary didn’t feel lucky. She felt alone. She’d never been alone before – she wasn’t meant to be alone now. She’d married at 18 and moved from her parent’s house to her marital home. Then she had had six children in eight years. Her life had been a surplus of people till now. Why had Jim died so young, leaving her – just when she was sick and needed him? He was only 59 – he should still be alive now, taking care of her as her health failed. Maybe she should have been the one who died. She’s gotten sick just months before Jim’s fatal heart attack, and had had been getting slowly worse ever since.
Mary thought bitterly that it would have suited everyone very well if she had died instead of their father. He had dropped dead suddenly, ten years ago, in front of Louise and Jeff. The shock to the whole family had been terrible. Michael and Marie had never really recovered from it. They certainly didn’t bother with Mary much anymore. That wouldn’t change.
Mary wiped away the tears that streamed from her eyes and wet her pillow. She dug the hanky from under her pillow and blew her nose quietly. Then she sighed and lay back on the pillow. She had a lot to think about. She’d been alone and sick for ten years. Now she had to plan her last remaining – remaining what? Years? Months? How long did she have? All through this long and desperate illness, she had feared death and struggled against it. Even now she did not feel ready to die. Despite being hooked up to an oxygen tank for the past decade; despite being eschewed by her own children – people who once couldn’t go a day without calling on her for one thing or another, long after they had left home to have families of their own; and despite spending at least half her day resting, trying to catch her breath, and to arrange her jagged breathing into a steady pattern so that she could live another day. Even with all that, Mary wanted to live. “Dolce vita,” she thought, and she faded into sleep.
When she awoke the next morning, she felt surprisingly refreshed. She couldn’t recall her dreams but knew that a problem had been resolved. But which problem was it? She checked her list of concerns. Returning to Canberra made her happy that she would be there when the first blossom tree bloomed. That was one of her favourite times – September first, when her apricot tree blossomed each year without fail. Being alone? She suddenly knew that she didn’t want to share her home with a border. She would join a mah-jong club – she’d heard of one at her local community centre. And besides – she would have the Blue Nurse coming a few times a week; and the cleaner; and the gardener once a week for the next six months. Actually, she realised that she wanted to re-do the courtyard completely. She’d draw a plan and employ a gardening professional, then watch it come to life.
And there were the legal details to be organised, too. She wouldn’t leave everything in a mess as Jim had done – a mess she had been left to clean up. The first thing she would do when she got home was see a lawyer about her will.
Louise knocked and opened the door. “Mum, do you want a hand coming downstairs?” she asked.
“I’d rather have it up here, thanks love,” said Mary with a smile. “I want to start packing.”
“Oh, OK.” said Louise. “Can I help?”
“I’ll bring my tea up then, too,” said Louise.
A year and a half after returning to Canberra, Mary died in the Royal Canberra Hospital, surrounded by her children. She died a month before her 68th birthday.
Louise, as executor of Mary’s will, immediately received financial requests from both her brothers. “I just need an advance,” said one. “I’ll pay you back out of my share,” promised another.
Marie, the youngest, had driven down from Sydney in a van, packed up all Mary’s white goods and electrical appliances, and driven back to Sydney. Marie already had a beautiful home full of these things so no one really knew why she wanted a fridge and a vacuum cleaner, but at least there was now less for Jane to deal with. Marie didn’t even stay for the funeral. At least she’d been there at the end, though. Louise had not made it back to Canberra till it was too late.
Mary waited till the others had gone home to speak to Jane about it. They sat on the patio beside the pool in Jane’s backyard. Jane had taken a week off work to arrange her mother’s funeral, and commence the enormous task of emptying Mary’s house to prepare it for sale.
“I’m sorry to leave all this to you, Jane,” Louise said as she sipped the coffee Jane had made her.
“It’s alright,” said Jane. “You’re doing the estate, and I’m the only one here who would get the house ready, so what choice is there?”
“I know, but it is hard on you.” Louise shrugged. “It’s at times like these that I find living in another state especially difficult. You are never there when the extended family needs you.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Jane. “The boys are right here and they are no use at all.”
It was true. Despite checking in to see how the probate was progressing, their brothers had failed to offer any real assistance. And Louise was about to decamp back to Melbourne. Jane and her husband would have to clear out Mary’s house; organise the removal and sale – or discarding – of her belongings; clean the house; make any repairs required; keep the garden maintained; choose an estate agent to list the house for sale; and monitor the property till it was sold.
“Why are the boys so desperate for money? Louise asked Jane. “What would they have done if Mum hadn’t died? I don’t understand how they urgent need of a few thousand dollars happened to magically coincide with Mum’s death.”
Jane scoffed over her cigarette. “God, Louise – don’t you know that they are always in need of a few thousand bucks? Remember when Dad died?”
Louise nodded. She did remember. She and her mother had gone through her father’s finances and discovered that he was all but financially supporting Michael, James and Marie. “But that was over ten years ago – they were younger then,” she said to Jane. “Surely they’ve become financially independent since then?”
“I doubt it,” answered Jane. Then she shrugged. “Just give it to them – you won’t get any peace until you do.”
“Give them what?” asked Louise. “Mum’s estate is primarily her house. If they want their money, they will have to wait till the house is sold. And the more they help, the sooner they will get their inheritance.”
Jane laughed. “I don’t think they want it that badly,” she said.
But eventually the house was sold and probate was passed on Mary’s estate. There had also been a nest egg in her bank account; and funeral insurance.
Louise met with the solicitors, paid all the outstanding bills, settled with the estate agent and distributed the funds. Each of Mary’s five children received their inheritance with relief.
Marie made it known that hers was not going on the mortgage. “This is fun money,” she declared.
James bought himself a Winnebago. “I want freedom,” he announced.
Jane handed hers to David, knowing he would do something sensible with it. They didn’t have a mortgage, so he spent it on a sports car for her and a family holiday in Europe. “We had the time of our lives,” said Jane.
Michael had business debts which immediately soaked up his share. “Thank god the money came through in time,” he said.
And Louise paid off her mortgage. She thanked her parents every month when she was $1,000 richer. The divorce settlement was still in the pipeline and things had been financially stressful.
Her parents had worked their whole lives to support their family and leave this wonderful gift to their children. Louise only remembered one occasion on which they had purchased brand new cars. It was 1973, when they had bought matching Toyotas after Mary had gotten her driver’s licence at the grand age of 32. With that exception, they had always bought 1 year old cars. Just as they always went on family holidays, even after their kids had left home. Mum and Dad had taken everyone to Sydney to show the grandchildren the Taronga Park zoo and the Sydney opera house. They had booked the big house at Mollymook so that every couple had their own room, and the kids had a sleep-out. They didn’t ask anyone to contribute, and no one did. No one even took them out to dinner to say thanks, Louise remembered guiltily.
The inheritance was a huge consolation to Louise, who missed her mother more than she thought she would. Louise missed both her parents. Now that they were dead, no one was really interested in the events of her life anymore. To your parents, you are the star of the show. Now Louise was the parent. It was like the song “one green bottle, hanging on the wall.” In the natural order of things, as the most senior remaining person in the family, she was next.
But Louise had craved security all her life. Being a single parent was a lot of responsibility. To own her own home at the age of fifty was a gift she valued more highly than she could say. Not having to pay off a mortgage any longer would allow her the luxury of saving for her old age. It was something Louise knew was there, ‘old age’, but preferred not to think about. But the older she got, particularly now that she was single, the more she did think about it. Sure, she could cope with the child support Jeff sent them, but what about when that stopped? And James was already halfway through high school. She had a few more years at the most.
Louise suddenly remembered the light fittings in the house when she’d first bought it. They were amongst the first things they’d removed before they moved in, so old and oversized and sixties were they. The living room light fitting looked like a space station. It had so many elements of coloured and textured glass, all attached to the main ‘anchor’ by black metal rods.
The light in the stairwell was a dimpled, burnt orange ball. It hung by a black chain through which the power able was threaded.
The other light fittings throughout the house were equally awful. Back then, Louise had simply put it down to bad taste. Perhaps the previous owner, Mavis, a dear old thing apparently, was simply stuck in a sixties time warp.
But that hadn’t rung true with all the other things Louise had heard about Mavis. She’s been married to a vintner; had travelled the world, buried her husband and lived to the ripe old age of 85.
Now Louise understood. “Mavis had not been able to afford to redecorate,” she thought. “She probably lived very frugally, surrounded by the things she could afford when she’d last had any extra money, which by the look of things, was around 1967.” The thought was a sobering one.
“Thank you, Mum and Dad,” was Louise’s silent prayer.
Peter sighed as his mother entered his bedroom. Louise noticed and frowned.
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “Can’t I come into your room to talk to you?”
“You’re drunk,” said Peter, “and I know what you are going to say.” He pulled one arm over his head with the other arm and looked at his mother with a world-weary look.
Louise was affronted. “I am not drunk!” she said vehemently.
“You’ve been drinking,” insisted Peter.
“I’ve had a glass of wine, Peter. Just because some people” (they both knew she meant Jeff) “don’t drink at all doesn’t mean that if you have a glass of wine, you are drunk.”
“Maybe not for everyone,” said Peter.
“Oh.” Louise was affronted now. “So you think that I become drunk after one glass of wine?”
Peter sighed. “Mum, all I know is that when you drink, you then come up to my room and start with the ‘I had to leave your father’ talk, and I really don’t need to hear it again.” He shook his head. “Can we move on?”
“I don’t know!” Louise was shocked and upset by Peter’s words, and she was speaking louder than necessary. “I’d like to ‘move on’ as you put it, but I think we need to discuss our situation before we can do that.”
“You mean you need to discuss our situation,” Peter spoke loudly too. “I don’t need to discuss it. I don’t even want to think about it.”
“And maybe I can sense that, Peter, and it might be that I am coming to you when I have the time, and when you are available, to try to start a conversation with you about –“
“About how you had to leave Dad; and how you are right; yes, Mum, I’ve heard you.”
“Don’t you DARE speak to me that way!” Louise was really angry now. “Who do you think you are? If I want to discuss the family situation with you once a week for 30 minutes, then that’s what we will do.”
Peter sighed and returned to his computer which was, as usual, logged on to Facebook. But Louise wasn’t finished.
“And don’t you sigh at me and roll your eyes. I’ll pack that bloody computer into the boot of my car so fast you won’t have time to unplug it.” Peter looked scared – not because his mother was angry, but because he knew she might actually do as she threatened, and remove his computer. She’d done exactly that to James at one stage, and he had had to go without it for weeks, knowing it was bumping around in the boot of her car with all the groceries – great, leaky plastic bottles of milk and sticky cordial. But that was before Facebook, so there was less to lose. Still, James had made sure never to cross the line that caused him to lose his computer again.
“You kids just behave as though I’m only here for your benefit, and if I cause you any inconvenience by having an unpopular opinion, or daring to express a thought that pisses you off – suddenly I’ve got a problem and I’m an alcoholic! Jesus Christ!”
“No, Mum,” Peter tried to reclaim some control of the conversation. “That’s not what I meant. But you have to go off screaming at me because I actually tell you what I think-“
“Bullshit Peter! You have not told me how you feel about what I asked you about. You changed the subject so that all of a sudden – instead of talking about the divorce – we are talking about me drinking too much. But it isn’t really even about me drinking too much, because if it was about that, you would be concerned about my health, or my ability to do my job, or trying to hide booze from me because you had discovered that I was drinking in bed and in the bath and had alcohol hidden all over the house. That’s how alcoholics behave, Peter. Is that what I do?” she asked him.
Peter realised that his mother expected an answer. “No.”
“What do I do when I drink wine, Peter?”
Peter was upset by now, but determined to hold his own. “Usually you turn on the CD player.”
“That’s right. What else do I do?”
“You call your sister or you invite a friend over.”
“And sometimes I do my world famous impersonation of Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk, don’t forget that.”
Despite his upset, Peter snorted a laugh. “Yeah, it’s pretty sad.”
Louise relaxed a bit and sat on his bed. “I’ve met alcoholics, Peter. I’m glad to say that you have no experience of alcoholism and I hope you never have first-hand experience of an addict of any sort. It’s horrible and destructive, and I am insulted that you, a boy I love and do so much for, would say something so ugly to me.”
“I’m sorry, Mum,” Peter looked more like he wished she would go away than anything else, but apologetic was partly there too.
“Come downstairs,” Louise commanded him. Peter got up from his chair as though there was a weight tying him to his desk and followed his mother downstairs.
Louise went to James’ room and knocked on his door. After a minute, James said flatly “Come in.”
Louise entered the room. James was engaged in what looked like an intense computer game. He looked at his mother. “What?” he asked unceremoniously.
“Are you busy?” Louise decided to go for respectful rather than demanding.
“Yes, I am actually. Aaagghh!” He had not looked up from the computer screen and now clicked his mouse, threw it down and swore into his headpiece. The he took it off and said to his mother “I’m not busy anymore – I’m dead now.”
“Oh, sorry,” Louise said; thinking that this wasn’t the most auspicious of beginnings.
“So, what’s up?”
Louise decided to go for it. “Do you think I drink too much?”
James shrugged. “I don’t know whether you drink too much. I think it is more about your behaviour when you drink.” Louise looked at him frowning, so he continued. “You get all upset and rave on to us about shit. We can‘t do anything. You’re the one who has messed up your life – leave us out of it.” And he went back to his computer game.
Louise was so angry. She turned to Peter and said “Get Camille.”
But Camille had been listening quietly, around the corner in the lounge room. “I’m here,” she said now.
“Good.” She looked at her three kids, all taller than her; all looking down on her now. “We have to sort his out, now.” She paused a moment to try to calm herself because she was really very angry. “First of all, I am not an alcoholic. Yes, I drink on Friday night, and if I am with friends I drink a few glasses of champagne, but I don’t drink at any other time and I never break the law by driving when I drink. I am going through a very stressful time because of the divorce; I am under a lot of stress at work; and I am not taking prescription medication.”
“What?” James was finally paying attention. “What do you mean – you are not taking prescription medication? Why is that a reason to be stressed?”
Louise scoffed. “Do you know how many single working mothers in every first world country on Earth are functioning on the power of Prozac?”
“Maybe you should get some!” countered James.
“Why, James? Because you three can’t be bothered to talk to me once a week? Is it more convenient for you that I medicate myself than that you actually inter-act with me, or discuss the things that concern me? What is this?” She raised her hands to shoulder height, palms up, in a questioning gesture. “Are we a family or are we a boarding house where I am the maid? Because stuff that – I quit. I don’t want to spend what remains of the best years of my life waiting hand and foot on a bunch of selfish little shits who couldn’t give a bugger about me. The child support payments ain’t worth it, baby!”
“What about us?” Peter wanted his mother to stop this tirade and was hoping to shock her into retreat.
But Louise was up for it. “What, Peter?”
“What about our problems?”
“Your problems? You mean have I bought the right gel for your hair; or can I lend you my credit card so you can buy more games online; or can I call my friend for the website address of where you can get your Vans cheaper?”
“No – our problems, like going to school every day and getting our assignments done and studying for exams. You don’t care about our problems.”
“That’s a load, Peter, and you know it. You are using the age-old strategy of ‘attack is the most effective form of defence’. You’d rather criticise me than listen to my worries.” Peter looked deflated and stopped speaking. But Louise wasn’t finished. “I’ve spoilt you, haven’t I? You seriously think that my problems are no concern of yours, but your problems are mine to solve.” She turned to James. “You are now an adult. I am no longer responsible for your wellbeing, James. I am happy to support you at my own expense while you study and even while you find suitable employment, but that is a privilege, not a right.”
“It is your responsibility to support me until I am ready to be independent!” James was indignant and sounded sure of his footing.
“No, James, actually you are wrong there.” Louise stood up straight and answered him. “I am legally obliged to support you until you are an adult – which is 18. You passed that milestone a few years ago now.”
James scoffed. “Well, if that’s your attitude, that’s pretty pathetic,” he said. “Why did you have us if you weren’t prepared to support us? We didn’t ask to be born.”
“So what? I didn’t ask to be born either – but that didn’t mean I treated my parents disrespectfully or criticised them when they did something that wasn’t solely for my benefit.” Louise paused. “I will make the rules and you will obey them. I have the financial responsibility, and that buys me boss status.”
“So, we don’t get a say in anything?” Peter wanted the last word.
“I’m here to teach you about democracy, Peter; not practice it.” She faced Peter, then James. “You will treat me respectfully and obey me in this house. If you can’t do that, you have a choice: talk about me behind my back – but make sure I never, ever find out; or move into your own place.”
“You have to earn respect,” said James scornfully. “You can’t just order someone to respect you.”
“Watch me,” said Louise.
“What name was it under?” asked the receptionist, without looking up from her computer.
Louise had made a booking to have her car serviced. She’d changed from the service centre near his office that Jeff had used to one closer to home, for convenience. The problem was she couldn’t remember which name she had used to make the booking. Since separating, Louise had reverted to her original name, Keats. But occasionally she still used her married name because it was easier. For instance, at the kids’ schools she was still Louise Clarke; and on her passport she was still Clarke so that when she still travelled with the kids, she was easily identifiable as their mother.
“I don’t know,” she said answered apologetically. The girl looked at her impatiently, and Louise felt flustered. “I’m getting divorced and sometimes I use my old name,” she explained.
The receptionist smiled her understanding and laughed. “Oh, I know what that’s like,” she said. “Why don’t I look under both names?”
Louise gratefully gave the names and the booking was located.
“Fancy not knowing my own name!” Louise said to the receptionist, who nodded knowingly in response.
“It’s a confusing time,” she agreed.
“Well, what do you want from life?” Katherine’s question was pointed but not aggressive. They’d been discussing the pros and cons of romance after divorce, and they occupied different sides of the debate.
Louise sighed. Katherine never troubled herself with deliberation. She always knew exactly what she wanted, and it never changed. She wanted to be desired, envied and financially secure. And, she was. When her marriage ended, she howled all her tears, then went to the salon, had her hair done and dressed like a single woman till she found another man. Now she had a devoted boyfriend and managed her career, her home, her relationship and the ensuing blended family with the aplomb of private school principal. As far as Katherine was concerned, once you knew what you wanted, the getting of it was merely a detail.
“I don’t know,” admitted Louise. “What I wanted once is no longer relevant.”
“What?” Katherine didn’t understand.
“Well,” Louise tried to explain, “I wanted a home and family; I wanted a career. I have those things now and I don’t think I can really insert a man into any of it. When you are 25 or 30, getting married solves so many issues. Marriage becomes the solution to your accommodation needs; your family needs, and your financial needs. But 20 years later, marriage is an untenable proposition because of your accommodation, family and finances.”
Katherine was confused. “But you were married with all that! How can you say a man won’t fit in?”
“Because he won’t have his own place in my life.” Louise tried to explain. “Look. Jeff was the father, and he supported us while I had the kids. We had our relationship; and we each had our relationship with each of the kids, and our relationship together as parents of the kids. We each had natural, equal, immutable rights and obligations. If I take up with another man now, he will just be my boyfriend. He won’t have a direct, independent relationship with my kids. Easing a new person into a relationship with my three difficult kids would be just another chore for me. There is no way I could have a man move in – and heaven forbid that he have children of his own, even part-time. Which part of the house would be his domain? We live in every spare inch of our house as it is.”
“You don’t have to live together,” suggested Katherine
“Yeah, how long would that last?” Louise was the pragmatist.
“You could both sell and buy another, bigger place,” said Katherine reasonably.
“Yes, we could. But what if we split up? Then we have to sell and repurchase all over again. Do you know how much that is in stamp duty alone – not to mention moving costs?”
“Woah! Stop crunching the numbers, Keating!”
“Sorry. But do you see what I mean? That’s if the kids would even tolerate a new man in my life.”
“Your kids aren’t difficult!”
“When it comes to bringing an adult male into their home, they are.”
“God!” Katherine laughed. “You make it sound like a scary movie!” She put on a deep, sepulchral voice. “She brought an adult male into the home.” Still laughing, she asked, “An adult male what?”
“You know what I mean.”
Katherine nodded gloomily. She did know. The one black spot in the perfect re-alignment of her personal goal posts had been the clash between her teenage son Allan and her fiancé Mike. Allan didn’t see why his mother’s boyfriend should be allowed to boss him around in his own home; and Mike didn’t see why Katherine didn’t support him over her son. Allan wanted Mike to go home, and Mike wanted Allan to move out – preferably to his father’s house – so that he could move in. So Mike, the man who was supposed to replace her husband and become the new supportive, loving partner her husband had never been, had become another emotionally needy, fragile person in Katherine’s life which was already crowded with needy, fragile people. Her mother, whose constant criticism seeped like bad air into Katherine’s lungs before the caustic thoughts were sufficiently collected to be spoken; her father, who crept noiselessly from room to room in his own home in the vain hope of not attracting his wife’s disapproval; her teenage son and her 12 year old daughter – torn between looking forward to the summer holiday with their father at the beach and leaving their mother childless at Christmas; her boss, who was convinced that they were losing enrolments because Katherine wasn’t a 28 year old PhD who had given up modelling to teach at the TAFE; and Katherine’s own ingrained expectations of what a successful life looked like.
“It’s the break-down of the tribe,” said Katherine. “You see it happening everywhere. In the home; at the office. No one wants, respects or needs maturity. My boss keeps telling us that we are too old to teach the younger generation artistic design. I’m 47! I was told that you only had to give up your career after forty if you were a model or an air hostess.”
“Whatever. But teaching? That was supposed to be a safe bet for job security.”
“Nothing is a safe bet for job security, Katherine.” Louise shook her head. “I left accounting because of the hours, but now that I am 50, there is no way I would be able to get a good job! I’d have to buy the firm!”
“At least that’s an option,” retorted Katherine. “I can’t buy the TAFE.”
“Would you want to?” Louise smiled at her friend. “I do know what you mean, though. But what I can’t figure out is – where I am, now.” Louise continued, seeing that Katherine was waiting for an explanation. “Sometimes I think I would like to meet a lovely, loving man, and have a partner, but most men my own age are not attracted to, or attractive to, me.”
“Don’t tell me you are changing teams?” said Katherine.
“Please!” Louise shook her head. “No way – strictly hetero. But look at most 50 year old men. Hairy everywhere except on their heads; paunchy; and do they ever go to the dentist? What is with middle aged men and bad teeth? Have they never heard of dental floss?”
Katherine was openly laughing now, but Louise hadn’t finished. “I was always told that men age well and women fall apart after 40. So, where are all these guys who are ageing well? Have they all moved to a remote island somewhere? I’m only seeing men who have let themselves go!” She shuddered. “So, there is that. Then, there is the reason for the relationship. Why? Sex? In the over-fifty male category, that’s a case of diminishing returns. So take sex out of the picture. I have a home; I have a family; I am financially secure; the only men who find me attractive are not attractive to me – and what do I have? I have a single life. Which is probably fine, except that I have not been anticipating this. I now need to devise a future for myself to accommodate increasing amounts of ‘alone’ activities. Living alone – the kids will be gone in 5 years; holidaying alone; retiring alone. I have to rebuild a whole new future for myself. And there are no clues. No one writes songs or films about a glorious life alone – because no one wants to be alone. But what choice do I have? And no, I am not prepared to be gay, so don’t even joke about it.” Louise sighed. “Even my kids think I have lost the lottery of life. They certainly don’t want to end up ‘like Mum’. But in a way, it is the natural outcome of my life.”
“What do you mean?” asked Katherine.
“Well, I am financially secure, so my career has lost its ‘raison d’etre’; I’ve had my family, so reproduction is irrelevant, and therefore sex is not essential to achieving my life goals; and I was married long enough to know that having a partner is no insurance that I will have someone to share the things I enjoy doing. You both have to want to do the same things; like the same food; even the same sort of people. You have to have common interests or you are just putting up with someone else’s life choices.”
“It sounds like you are meant to be single,” said Katherine with a shrug.
“I know! It does, doesn’t it? But I still get lonely and need company, so I’ll simply have to find some friends. People who are in a similar predicament.”
“Yeah, good luck.”
“Thanks,” said Louise unenthusiastically. “The problem is that we live in a society where romance is always the answer.”
“Except when it’s the problem.”
Both women laughed.
The first inclination was to move – away from Melbourne; away from everyone who knew her as a wife. That was what you did at other points in your life when lifestyle changes were afoot. When you finished being a full-time student, you got a job and moved out of home, usually with friends and into a groovier, demographically appropriate part of town.
That’s what Jeff had done when their marriage ended. He’d moved straight back to Washington DC and gotten an apartment – not a flat, which meant a deflated tyre over there – in the apartment complex where his bachelor brother lived. It had a gym and a pool, where he would no doubt meet other divorcees as they relaxed after their high-powered career jobs within the beltway. Beltway Bandits they were called – consultants who were contracted to various Washington DC agencies for their expertise.
But where would she move to? And would she be able to move the kids? And even though there was no capital gains tax on a home, there was still the stamp duty to fork out on the new place. A tidy little pied-a-terre was not for her; wherever she moved to had to accommodate 4 people and a dog.
But imagine it: Sydney, where the weather was perfect 360 days of the year; or Brisbane, her birthplace, where rain meant one wet hour, not a soggy wet week. And the yellow sunshine: warm, then hot, then – when you just can’t take it any more – bam! It was completely dark and much cooler by 5.30. No twilight; no warning pink light to present the waning of the light sky. Just day one moment and black starry night the next. Tropical weather.
Who would she be, in a new place? She would be just herself. The New Lou. She would find what made her – not Jeff – happy; she would choose the things she liked and fill her life with them. She would have garlic on her salad; and wine with her meals. She would go to a different restaurant once a week – not the same one; and she would never, ever go to McDonalds ever again. She would buy her clothes from boutiques, not factory outlets. And she would have a beach holiday every single summer for a week, and feed everyone fish and chips from a shop out of the paper wrapping it came in.
That’s what she would do.
But Louise knew that she could not move the kids. Not again, and definitely not now. She wasn’t just living her life. She was setting the background for her children’s lives, too. And Melbourne was a great city – the greatest, if you listened to the people who knew – Melbournians. Hadn’t Melbourne declared itself the world’s most liveable city? Apart from the dismal weather, it had everything you could possibly want.
But what good were beaches when it was constantly cold? In fact, who felt like going out and exploring anyplace in the wet? Maybe Melbourne was a great place to live because, despite having a population of 3.5 million people, most Melbournians stayed in where it was warm and dry. Unlike Sydney, which was only slightly bigger, but which felt ten times the size of Melbourne because everyone was out and about, enjoying the sunshine.
It was a decision which invited pondering but not resolution. A move was enticing: nicer weather; a fresh beginning; a house more suitable to the kids’ current needs. But the practical things urged her to stay: finances; security; and stability.
Louise remembered a Chinese proverb she had come across at uni: “He travels fastest who travels alone.” And she realised, too, that she wasn’t alone, and speed wasn’t relevant. Parenting wasn’t for the goal oriented; it was for those who valued the process; those who valued each step and each day and each building block of achievement. She wanted to live the life that suited her kids best. This life in Melbourne was her choice.
The tension between James and Camille was becoming harder to ignore. Louise had just put dinner on the table and James was sitting beside his sister.
“Muuuuum! James smells!”
“You smell,” James seemed to take delight in not being upset by Camille’s insults.
“You never take a shower and you never wash your clothes.”
“That’s right,” said James. “And I don’t wash because it annoys you!”
“Mum – tell him to put some clothes on.”
In an attempt to gather an urban family around her kids because her own extended family lived an eight-hour drive away, Louise set a regular night to have a local family to dinner. It was hard enough to find another single parent family in this leafy suburb of happily marrieds; and even harder to find a woman Lou got along with who had kids her kids liked. But she had done it.
It was a casual event and nicely set up to suit everyone. Maggy, who lived in Unit 6, was divorced too and had her kids, Matt and Lisa, for half the week from Saturday to Monday. She worked full-time and maintained a healthy social life, including a boyfriend, so she was very busy and although she could cook, she preferred not to. Louise wasn’t a gifted or even innovative cook but she enjoyed cooking, and Maggy’s two kids were the same ages as Camille and Peter – just the opposite way around. That is, Camille was the same age as Matt and Peter was the same age as Lisa; but since they were barely a year apart in age anyway, it really didn’t matter. They were 4 teenagers who had the same interests and the same outlook and despaired of their parents to the same extent. It all worked.
So, every other Sunday Louise would prepare a meal for seven, and Maggy would arrive promptly at six with wine, dips, chips and crackers to settle in for a gossip, a drink and a meal. After a couple years of this, Maggy had become rather too familiar with Louise’s small and much loved cd collection, and had started to bring copies she’d burned of her own cds, just to spice up the available mix. It gave the evening a celebratory atmosphere, and the music was carefully chosen to recall to the women earlier times of gaiety and youth.
“Mum?” Peter had a request.
The kids had almost finished eating. Before Louise could respond to Peter, there was a knock on the door. Louise jumped up to answer it.
“Katherine, come in,” Louise greeted her welcome though unexpected guest.
“I’m not interrupting anything, am I?” Katherine smiled at Maggy.
“No, no – it’s just a neighbourly dinner. Have you eaten?”
“Yes; no; I mean I haven’t eaten but I’m not eating, so no, I don’t want anything, thank you.”
“Are you on the ‘no dinner diet’?” Louise got Katherine a glass of wine and resettled herself back at her place.
Peter decided to make his request on behalf of all the kids except James, (who had already finished eating and deserted them for his computer game), before there were any more interruptions.
“Mum, may we leave the table?”
Louise was quick to respond this time. “Yes, sure – get the box of ice-creams out of the freezer and share them around.
“Thanks, Mum,” said Peter.
“Thanks Louise,” said Matt. Lisa and Camille were busy choosing their favourite ice cream. All four of them wafted off into the bedrooms where laptops and ipods awaited their instructions.
Maggy asked both women “What’s the ‘no dinner diet’?”
“You skip dinner,” explained Louise.
“So, how is that a diet?” Maggy wasn’t convinced. “I’d just pig out on chips if I skipped dinner.”
“No, that’s not the ‘no dinner diet’.” Louise shook her head theatrically at her friend. “That’s just skipping dinner and filling up on crap.” She sipped her wine and continued in a professorial tone. “The ‘no dinner diet’ is scientifically proven to reduce caloric intake and, therefore, weight. But it must be strictly adhered to; and both elements of the diet must be observed.”
Maggy looked at Katherine who was stifling a smile. “I can’t wait to hear this,” said Katherine. “I might learn something.”
Maggy decided to play along. “Go on then,” she said. “What are the two elements of the diet?”
“The beauty of this diet is in its simplicity, affordability and that it is self-explanatory,” explained Louise. “The first element of the diet is, as you have correctly identified, the ‘no dinner’ aspect. The second element is the ‘diet’ aspect. So, you skip dinner, BUT you don’t eat anything else! In fact, you don’t eat anything after lunch. However, you MUST eat breakfast and lunch on this diet, otherwise…”
“Otherwise what?” asked Maggy through a mouthful of chips, which had been left on the table and were now being eaten again since dinner was finished.
“Otherwise you will get malnutrition and a severe case of bitchitis.”
“What?” Maggy almost choked on her chips and held her hand over her mouth.
“You know;” said Lou, “the feeling you get when you are on a strict diet and your blood sugar drops and it is 4 o’clock in the afternoon and you can’t have alcohol because it isn’t 5 o’clock yet and you are on a diet that doesn’t allow alcohol anyway? Bitchitis!”
Maggy and Katherine laughed. “Oh, that feeling!” Maggy nodded her head. “I know it well.”
“I get that feeling whether I am on a diet or not,” agreed Katherine.
“That’s because the world is full of bastards who are just trying to annoy the weasel piss out of us!” Louise was on a roll tonight.
“She’s right!” Katherine clinked Louise’s glass with hers. “You’ve just described my life!”
“No!” Maggy was disbelieving. “Not your whole life, surely! Moments, perhaps-“
“All the moments with my ex-husband in them, that’s for sure.” Katherine refilled her glass.
Maggy looked as though all the air had been let out of her pretty balloon. “Oh, yes, well I suppose that when you put into the mix, life does become rather annoying.”
“That’s one word for it,” said Lou. “I just don’t think marriage works after a certain period.”
Maggy frowned. “All marriages?”
Louise nodded. “The vast majority of them. Fifteen years; and they need to be rolled up and buried in the backyard with all the other dead family pets before they start to stink and make everyone sick. And please don’t tell me that 50% of marriages work. We don’t know that. All we know is that 50% of marriages end in divorce which leaves the other 50% of marriages remaining. And let’s face it, that 50% includes people who were lucky enough that their bastard husband died of some natural causes-“
“Louise!” Maggy was shocked but still laughing.
AND all the people who stay together even though they hate each other“
“Like my parents,” agreed Maggy.
“Mine, too,” said Katherine.
“And it includes the people who split up but never bothered to sign the forms to get a divorce, AND the people who stay together simply because breaking up would mean financial ruin or homelessness for the woman.”
“You are right.” Katherine was surprised by what she saw as the accuracy of Louise’s assessment. “That’s pretty depressing, actually.”
Louise laughed. “You two shouldn’t worry – look at you both! You have great guys! I’m just making myself feel better. You know – misery loves company and all that.”
Katherine looked accusingly at Maggy. “I thought you were divorced?”
“I am,” said Maggy. Then she smiled. “But I met someone.”
“RSVP – where else?”
“Good old RSVP, where would we be without it?” Katherine laughed.
“Is that where you met Mike?” Maggy asked.
“Yep!” said Katherine.
“I am the only person I know who can’t meet anyone on RSVP!” wailed Louise.
“Have you tried?” asked Katherine disbelievingly.
“Of course I’ve tried!” said Louise. “And the only men I get any interest from are ten years too old! All the guys my age reject me instantly.”
“Oh, I know.” Maggy nodded. “I was so lucky to find Trev. He was new on the site and I snapped him up! He didn’t even get a chance to play around.”
Katherine wanted to know more. “So,” she asked Maggy, “ how long have you been seeing each other?”
“Four glorious months,” sighed Maggy happily.
“Oh,” said Katherine, “so not long.”
Louise felt that Katherine’s competitive side might be rearing its ugly head, so she took up the challenge on Maggy’s behalf. “But they have been hot-and-heavy months, haven’t they Mag?”
Maggy blushed and smiled. “They sure have!”
“And what does he do?” asked Katherine.
Louise jumped in. “Can I tell?” When Maggy nodded, Louise turned to Katherine and said “Trev’s a helicopter surveillance cop!” Katherine was speechless, so Lou continues. “And he even flies over our houses and one day this brazen hussy flashed the girls at him!”
“What?” Katherine was disbelieving.
“It’s true!” insisted Louise, “from her kitchen balcony!”
Maggy laughed. “I did!”
“So, he flies over here in a helicopter?”
“No, well,” Maggy was embarrassed.
“Yes, he does!” Louise wouldn’t let Maggy belittle her romantic accomplishment.
“But only on his way to something legitimate,” insisted Maggy.
“I’m still impressed,” said Lou.
Katherine said nothing.
Maggy had nice manners so she asked Katherine “What does your guy do?”
“He’s in accounting,” answered Katherine truthfully. Well, she didn’t say that he was an accountant.
“Oh!” said Maggy. “Does he work for an accounting firm?”
“No,” said Katherine.
“He’s with Australia Post, isn’t he?” asked Louise, knowing that he was.
“Yes,” said Katherine.
“Oh,” said Maggy.
“But I’m not going to flash my tits at the mailbox, so don’t get any ideas!” They all laughed, and Louise choked a little on her wine.
“James?” Louise called her son to wake him up. It was 12 noon on Saturday.
“Eh?” James grunted from under the covers.
“James, could you please wake up? I want to clean the house after I get back from doing the shopping, and I want you and Peter to vacuum.”
“Oh,” James said in a muffled, sleepy voice. “Is that what you want?”
“Yes, James, that is what I want.” Louise was firm. “Kim and her mother, Alison, are coming over to dinner tonight and I am going up to Forest Hill now to buy everything. Then I will come home and we can clean up and I will get started on the meal. They will be here at six.”
“Wake me at 5.30 then,” said James, still in bed.
Louise had been speaking to James from the kitchen, but now she walked into his room. “No, James, you need to get up now,” she said stridently. “I can’t do it all myself and I shouldn’t have to. Kim is your girlfriend and we are having her family to dinner.”
“I didn’t invite them – you did!” James protested loudly.
“That’s just a cop out!” responded Louise. “Alison is off to Canada next week and we are having them to dinner to say good luck. This is what people do, James. This is a social event and you are going to be part of it.”
“You be part of it!” James said angrily. “I don’t want to be part of it.”
“Too bad. Just get out of bed and have a shower. I’ll make you a smoked salmon croissant for breakfast and then you can tidy your room and vacuum downstairs and Peter will vacuum upstairs.”
“Go away,” said James.
“I’ll leave the croissant on the bench.” She was making it as she spoke. It was the breakfast she made James every morning. “There,” she said, placing it on a plate and leaving it on the bench. “Now please get into the shower.”
“Leave me alone.”
“I’ll leave you alone when you get out of bed. I can’t leave until you are up because I know you won’t get up if I don’t make you.”
“I won’t get up because I don’t want to get up. There is no reason to get up.”
Louise raised her voice. “GET OUT OF BED JAMES.”
“OK!” James yelled back at her. He got up and trudged sleepily upstairs to the bathroom.
“Good.” Louise collected her handbag and shopping list. “I’m off, then. See you in a little while.” Then she called up the stairs. “Camille, are you coming shopping with me?”
“Be right there!” answered Camille.
It took a couple of hours to visit the butcher and green grocer, then the supermarket and florist. Louise was planning to cook a Thai prawn curry with noodles and a baked cheesecake. They would start with an avocado entrée.
When she got home, Louise peeled the prawns and made the marinade. Then she got onto cleaning the house. Louise was by nature a very tidy person, but the house was dusty and needed a good going-over. James had not gotten out of bed during her absence and had not vacuumed.
“Peter!” Louise called up the stairs.
“What?” came the response.
“Come here please,” Louise tried to not sound annoyed, which was how she felt. Peter finally appeared. “Would you please vacuum half the house?”
“Now?” asked Peter, clearly unwilling.
“Yes, please,” Louise was tired of this back-and-forth. “Look, Peter, I don’t ask you kids to do very much at all. I make all your meals and your beds; I take out the rubbish and do all the shopping and cooking and cleaning and washing and folding and gardening – all I ask of you three is that you take it in turns to vacuum one level of this small house. It takes you 20 minutes every other week, and every single time I have to ask you over and over till you do it. No one has to ask me to do all the things I do for everyone – so please spare me the protracted argument and just VACUUM!”
Peter must have realised that the situation would deteriorate from this point and that he would still have to vacuum, so he trudged back up the stairs and extracted the vacuum cleaner from its cupboard and commenced his duty. And, as Louise had predicted, he was finished in 20 minutes.
“Where should I leave the vacuum?” he asked a trifle sullenly when he had finished.
“Just leave it under the kitchen bench for James,” answered Louise. “And thank you Peter. You’ve done a very nice job.”
“You’re welcome,” answered Peter, in a slightly less affronted tone.
Spurred on by her small success, Louise knocked at James’ door. “James,” she called through the crack she had dared to open, “Can you please get up and vacuum downstairs? Peter has done upstairs, and there are only 4 hours till our guests arrive and I have a lot to do. I don’t want this house to smell like vacuuming when they arrive, so I need you to do it now please?”
James growled and rolled over in his bed; but within 5 minutes he was up and pushing the vacuum around the living room.
“Good,” thought Louise. And she returned to her cooking.
Louise had two sets of crockery: one was a white set from Target; the other was a three piece set of Villeroy & Boch’s “French Garden”. She had only three pieces for each setting because that was all she had been able to afford. It was her 50th birthday present to herself.
Louise was never the type to desire house things. She was practical though, and had assembled a neat, attractive home environment without needing to acquire expensive items. Nevertheless, the day she had spotted this dinner set, she had to have it. It was so very beautiful – yet useful, too. Louise had just walked past the shop and looked in the window at the display, and that was all it took. She went home and dreamt about these plates – plates! Who has a plate dream? Shocked at her own weakness, she returned the next day and bought as many of the dinner set as her credit card allowed and went home without feeling any remorse whatsoever.
And that same night she had cooked the family meal and served it on the new dishes and said quite seriously to her kids “This dinner service is jewellery for our table.” The kids blinked at her and looked again at the plates, wondering what they had missed. Was this like the Emperor’s Clothing? Was it a test? Then they realised that their mother was having another one of her “moments”, so they were as polite as they knew how to be.
“Oh, yes,” said James. “Very nice.”
“Yes,” agreed Peter. “Nice plates.”
“We will have to get matching cups and saucers, Mum.” That was Camille. Louise smiled at her.
“Yes, we will,” she agreed.
The rule was that the white set was used whenever they had visitors, on the basis that if a friend damaged one of their beautiful dishes, it would be both unforgivable and expensive to rectify. Better to avoid the stress of risking it and use the easily replaceable Target crockery.
But tonight, for the Masons, the family dinner set was to be used. Louise cut the flowers to fit the vase and placed them beside the lamp on the side table by the couch. She went through the napkins and selected her nicest ones and folded them so that the pattern showed when they were placed beside each setting. All the portions of the meal which could be cooked in advance were prepared, so that only a minimum of cooking was required once the guests arrived.
“Oh, Louise, this is lovely!” Alison was always an appreciative guest and Louise enjoyed her company. Kim smiled her agreement on her mother’s pronouncement. Louise poured each of them a glass of the champagne they had brought, and the evening had begun.
“Aren’t you having one?” Alison sounded disappointed when she commented on Louise not pouring herself a glass.
Louise shook her head. “Not tonight,” she said.
“Why not?” Alison had clearly been looking forward to the usual drink and chat. It’s never as much fun to drink alone.
Louise shrugged. “A few reasons really,” she said. “I want to lose some weight, for one thing. And for another, I want to be a better role-model for the kids. Not that I drink every day, but I do tend to drink whenever I am relaxing and socialising. I want the kids to see me enjoying myself without drinking, just to show them that it can be done.” She smiled at Alison. “I don’t want to spoil your fun, though! I’ll be abstaining until I lose about two kilos.”
“Fair enough,” said Alison. Weight loss is a topic the over-fifties are all too familiar with, and as Louise had always managed to keep her own weight within a reasonable range, none of her friends tried to talk her out of it when she decided that it was time to rope in her caloric intake.
“Okay everyone – dinner!” Louise announced, loud enough so that the kids could hear her in their rooms upstairs.
The dining table was a rectangular shape, with long benches on each side instead of individual chairs. Normally, the family sat two on each side. With the guests, the usual seating arrangements were disrupted and three people had to sit on each bench, and someone at the head of the table, on James’ desk chair, which Louise had already wheeled in.
“James, let Alison have the chair at the head of the table,” said Louise. She gave this instruction because she was afraid that Alison would find the bench too hard, although Louise herself found them surprisingly comfortable; and so that Alison would not be jostled by kids while she ate.
So James sat beside Camille.
“Mum, can you ask James to move over? He is hogging the space!”
“Mum, can you ask Camille to put her elbows down? There is no need for her to dig them into me.”
Louise sighed. “Stop it, both of you. James, please move up and Camille, please keep your elbows tucked in.”
James moved a millimetre on the bench. “Mum, he hasn’t moved!” Camille’s voice was strident.
“Mum, you are doing it again!” James spoke too loudly.
“What?” asked Louise.
“Letting her get away with bad behaviour! You are so bad at this – no wonder Camille has no friends!”
“Just stop it James; and don’t try to upset Camille by saying nasty, untrue things about her! That’s being passive aggressive.”
“At least I’m making an effort to treat her the way she deserves to be treated. You let her get away with anything.”
“I’m going to my room,” Camille got up from the table.
“Sit down Camille. We are eating dinner now.” Louise was delivering the plates to each person, and making sure that they each had the right cutlery and a glass of water.
“Why should I?” demanded Camille. “James is just going to push me off the bench and I won’t be able to eat anyway.”
“If you knew how to behave, you might not be treated that way.” James’ tone was superior.
“Just eat.” Louise was losing her patience.
“This is lovely Louise,” Kim decided to change the subject.
Alison had said very little, Louise noticed. “Probably wondering what sort of a mad house they are in,” she thought.
“So, Alison, are you looking forward to going to Canada to study?”
“Yes, it’s happening at last” Alison answered. “I’ve been planning for it for months!”
“Don’t forget to rug up! And I would make sure that any jacket you get yourself is long enough to cover your derriere, so that you can sit in a car comfortably. Some of the cars have heated seats, but lots don’t.” Louise was remembering her own trip to Canada a few years ago and trying to come up with helpful hints for Alison.
Camille had finished eating and got up to leave the table.
Louise spoke to her. “Where are you off too?”
“I’m going to my room,” said Camille firmly. “I’m not staying here to be pushed by James every minute.”
“Camille! We have guests – and I want you to be part of the conversation.” Louise looked around. They so rarely had Kim’s mother over, and she wanted everyone to be involved. “Don’t you think it is lovely to hear about Alison going overseas to study in the middle of her architecture degree? I want you to hear what she has to say about it!”
“What’s the point?” asked Camille. “If I say anything, James will just contradict me.”
“So? James is just one person! What about the rest of us?”
Camille scoffed. “Well, Kim and Peter will agree with everything James says.”
“Only because I am right,” said James.
“See?” Camille turned to go upstairs.
“NO!” Louise shouted. “SIT DOWN!”
Suddenly she had had enough and Louise could not keep her frustrations in any longer. She turned on James, still shouting. “You just never stop, do you?”
“Why should I?” James shouted back at her. “You never stop her – you just let her get away with anything. Someone has to stand up to her and as usual, it is me.”
“No, James – you don’t have to stand up to her. You are a not a parent in this house.”
“I’m an adult in this house.”
“Yes, you are! You are 21 years old! She is 15! You are a grown man and she is a 15 year old school girl – and you are picking on her all the time! She is at school for a full day every day – not 3 and a half days a week, like you. She comes home to relax and you are here – picking on her and criticising her! You never stop! And you have Peter and Kim – ‘Team James’ – always backing you up. Of course I have to take her side! You’ve made it so that I HAVE to take her side, just to even up the pressure!”
“You should never have become a parent,” James shook his head. “You are so bad at it.”
“Yeah – and you are such a man! What a man – bullying a 15 year old girl. And let’s face it James, you wouldn’t be so full of the tough talk if Jeff was here!”
“What?” James smiled and shook his head as though Louise was totally losing the plot now.
“You! You wouldn’t DARE say any of this if I wasn’t on my own! It’s only because there is just me in charge here, so you think have free reign.”
“You can’t win this argument so you are falling back on that? Wow!” James was ridiculing his mother.
But Louise was getting more worked up. “I can’t stand it anymore, James. If you can’t obey my rules, you can’t live here anymore. You are an adult – you have finished your bachelor’s degree. I’ve done my job. You need to move out.”
“No, I don’t. I’m still a full-time student and I don’t need to move out – you need to treat Camille the same way you treat the rest of us.”
“The rest of you? You and Peter – Team James? And where do you get off telling me what to do?”
“Clearly someone needs to because you are not doing a very good job on your own.”
“How dare you?” Louise was angry. She got up from the table and was shouting at James. “You are such a shit! I’ve worked all day for this dinner party. I got up early and went to the market and the butcher; then I came home and cleaned the house and started cooking the three course meal; then I set the table and served everyone; and all you have done is upset me and mouth off. I’ve been working all day and I’m bloody tired. I wanted to sit down with Alison and Alison and hear about her plans and have an adult conversation, but you had to make the whole bloody evening about you!” Louise turned to her guests. “I’m sorry about this. I’m too upset now – I’m going to have to ask you to leave and I am really sorry. I can’t live like this anymore. I know you think I am insane, but I live with this every day and I can’t take it anymore.”
Alison did not respond. Her shock was overwhelming and she sat still while Louise shouted her apology.
James and Kim and Peter had congregated in James’ room. Louise went to the kitchen doorway and continued her shouting. “It’s not a family event unless my family is present, and you have made it so Camille can’t be part of any family event. Why don’t you leave? This is MY home, and you only get to live here while you are a child, or while I say you can. You are an adult and if you cannot accept my rules – leave! We could use the extra space.”
Louise hugged Alison and apologised again. “I’m so sorry,” she said, crying now.
Alison tried to comfort her. “It’s OK Louise, you lost your temper. It happens.”
“This is not what I wanted tonight, Alison.” Louise responded. “I was really looking forward to seeing you.”
“Things happen for a reason,” said Alison.
The kids had escaped to their rooms and Louise began cleaning up after the meal. She was a very tidy cook and always cleaned as she went, so there was really only the dishwasher to pack. It was all done within 20 minutes and then there was a knock at the door.
Louise went to answer it, wondering if it was Alison.
But it wasn’t Alison. It was the police. Two officers – a man and a woman.
“Hello?” said Louise.
“Good evening, ma’am,” said the male police officer. “I’m Constable Johnson and this is Constable Patrick. We have been called to respond to a disturbance here tonight,” he explained.
“Oh,” said Louise. “Come in.”
Both officers entered the house and looked around. They looked puzzled and exchanged glances. “Is anyone else at home?” asked Johnson.
“Yes,” answered Louise. “My three kids are here.”
“May we see them please?”
“Sure.” She went to James’ door but he was already opening it. “Hello,” said James.
The police nodded at James. “And the others?”
Louise took them upstairs and the police met Camille and Peter, and looked into every room in the house. Then they followed Louise downstairs.
Constable Johnson spoke. “Camille and Peter can go back to bed, and we will talk to you and James.” Louise nodded and they went back into the lounge room. “What happened here tonight?”
“I had a melt-down and was shouting at my eldest son, James.”
Both police nodded. “So, there was no alcohol here tonight?”
“Yes,” said Louise, “we had friends to dinner, and they had a glass of wine, but I didn’t have any.”
“You?” Johnson asked James.
“I had a glass of wine,” said James.
“And there was no violence of any sort?”
James and Louise looked shocked. “No!” They answered as one.
“I’m really sorry about the shouting,” said Louise. “The poor neighbours – they hear me shouting at the kids a lot and tonight I was really loud. I’m so sorry.”
Constable Johnson shook his head. “You have no idea what a relief it is for us to be called to a house that is clean and where there is no alcohol or blood.”
Louise gulped. “You poor things,” was all she could think to say.
Constable Johnson asked her, “So, what was this about?”
Louise waited to see if James wanted to answer, but he gestured that she should respond, so she said “James is 21 and Camille is 15. The two of them fight all the time over petty things and I just can’t take it anymore. I’m a single mother and if their father was here, I know James wouldn’t pick on Camille the way her does. The boys gang up on her and –“
“Okay,” said the policeman. “I think I get it.” He turned to James. “So; it might be time for you to make a move,” he suggested. “Out.”
James shook his head as though the whole thing was beyond his control. “I’m still a full-time student,” he said.
The policeman nodded. “Yes, but plenty of young men study part-time. I did.” He turned to Louise. “It’s a relief for us to see a mother standing up to her adult kids,” he said. He shook his head. “You should see some of the things we see. Kids who won’t leave home – especially where there is just the mother at home. They strut around as though they own the house their mother has worked to pay off and still keeps clean. And these are people in their twenties – it’s pitiful.”
The policewoman nodded her head in agreement. “How long have you been living here?’ she asked.
Louise thought. “I bought this place when we separated, so about 4 years ago. I’m so sorry for the neighbours,” started Louise.
“Why?” asked the policeman. “They know you are a single woman trying to raise three kids on your own – and your kids look alright to me. So, you shout at them! So what? They couldn’t knock on your door and see if you needed a hand? Great neighbours they are! And this is supposed to be a posh neighbourhood!”
The policewoman said “I will get a counsellor to call you next week, and you two can make an appointment if you think it would help.”
“Thanks,” said Louise.
“Yes, thanks you,” said James.
“And you need to start looking for a group house, and a job,” said the policeman. “If you can’t live peaceably with your mother and the younger kids, do the other thing. You are too old to be your mother’s problem. She’s got those other two to raise, and that is usually a two-person job. Don’t make it harder than it already is. Parenting is a lot harder than it looks, and single parenting is twice as hard.”
James stood looking at him, trying not to look as confused as he felt. Louise watched her son take instructions from a man in a uniform. Where were his smart-mouth, and over-confident retorts now, she wondered? All tucked away and hidden from view. Fancy that.
After she had closed the door, she opened her laptop. “What are you doing?” James sounded nervous. Surely she wasn’t going to tell Dad?
“Emailing Alison,” answered Louise. “She had to put up with all the shouting and arguing. She deserves to know the ending.”
“Louise!” It was Jane. She usually called at this time – just before they both began cooking dinner – and they discussed the events of their lives. Jane was 10 years into her second marriage, having been previously married at age 20 for 15 years and producing 4 children. She and her current partner, David, had a son who was now 7 years old. One of her older children was herself a mother and separated from her troublesome partner, so Nana-Jane provided more than the usual grandmotherly support. In addition to this, Jane was a senior public servant with a federal department in Canberra. Consequently, Louise’s news paled into insignificance beside the events of Jane’s life and Louise was loath to miss even an episode of the unfolding saga of her little sister’s extended family.
“Hi Janey-Paney,” she chirruped into the phone. “What’s going on?” This was her invitation to unload the next instalment into the earpiece where Louise was poised, wine glass in hand.
“I need a favour.” Jane paused.”
“Sure, if I can do it. What is it?”
“I need to tell David that you have borrowed $5,000 from me,” Jane was breathless in her nervousness. “You see, Joshua” (her eldest, currently aged 25 and living near his father on the Gold Coast) “needs $5,000 and asked me for a loan. I can lend it to him but David would go mad if he found out; but if I say you needed the money, he wouldn’t.”
Louise knew the scenario well. Both David and Jane worked long and hard and earned extremely good money. They lived very well and enjoyed what there was of their leisure time. However, the one – or perhaps it was more accurate to say the four – black spots on this successful horizon were the constant and unmitigated calls made on their purse by Jane’s first four kids.
Jane, to assuage the undeserved guilt she bore because she had left her first husband, felt compelled to comply with every demand for money. David, aware of Jane’s inability to refuse her offspring, had taken control of both their incomes and managed it extremely well. Unfortunately he had not allowed any amount in his budget for ‘incidentals’ and had not provided her with a discretionary ‘slush-fund’; surely a necessity in the most transparent of marital financial arrangements; and this omission had rendered his financial administration draconian and unworkable for the obliging Jane.
The problem was that Louise never ever borrowed money. Her independence was well known and well deserved. She had only lent money once, and that had been to Jane, about 20 years previously, during her first marriage, when she had wanted to join an expensive weight-loss club. The money had been repaid but the event never repeated. Jane understood that her elder sister was independent and frugal and lived on much, much less than Jane did.
Although Louise agreed with David’s response, and understood what David was doing probably better than Jane understood it, she did not understand why he did not allow some small ‘slippage’ in his calculations. Louise herself had accumulated – and continued to accumulate – savings and investments at a steady rate no matter what her circumstances; but she never deviated from her budget, which she calculated, re-calculated and reconciled regularly. She told her own children that this discipline gave her the freedom to do everything she wanted to do – only the timing had ever to be adjusted. But she always budgeted for extraneous expenditure, because a rigid budget always ended up in the bin.
So, although Louise was proud that she had never borrowed money from anyone other than the Commonwealth Bank, and only then at 7% to purchase real estate which appreciated at 8%, she was more inclined to assist her sister than uphold her reputation of financial independence with her fiscally astute brother-in-law.
“Sure,” said Louise. “Just don’t ask me to thank him!”
“No,” laughed Jane. “Thanks.”
“Will I be paying it back?”
“Yes! I’ll pay it back as soon as I get my tax return – in about two months.”
“Alright. But make sure you do!”
“I will,” promised Jane.
These days, years after they’d separated, Louise’s thoughts were frequently interrupted by surprise ‘epiphanies’ on her marriage. She wondered if this was common during a long separation when divorce was clearly on the agenda? Did others find that the missing piece of puzzle, long since relinquished and regarded as insignificant, suddenly appeared and illuminated an hitherto unknown element of past history?
She remembered a time early in 1998, when Jeff had moved out of the bedroom and into the study. He’d moved without explanation, and Louise had spent weeks worrying about what she had done, or could do, to entice him back to their bedroom. He’d erected an old double bed in there, and without comment had begun sleeping apart from Louise. He wasn’t working in those days, so the only time Louise could enter his study was while he was in the shower. Jeff did his own washing and tidying – not to help around the house; but to ensure his privacy.
But all she could see in the study, apart from the bed, were two television screens which were connected to the computer.
It was only now, years later, and with a better knowledge of her husband’s pornography collection that Louise put the information together: Internet connection: late 1997; separate bedroom: early 1998; interest in pornography; ongoing.
It was nice when things made sense at last. Having spent so many years wondering how she could make her home and her husband happy, Louise laughed at her egotism. It had had nothing whatsoever to do with her! Fancy thinking she could have changed anything. Jeff must have enjoyed watching her trying in vain to please him and taking part of the blame for their marital tension; trying to design the day in accordance with his wants; cooking only the things he liked; entertaining only the people he liked; never leaving him alone with the kids, or asking him to undertake any of the household chores he should have helped with, since he didn’t actually go to work from 1997 to 2000. She’d starved herself to get her weight down to 53 kilos after the birth of her third baby, hoping this would entice him back to her bed. She’s denied herself any nice food and endured headaches and hunger pains as she’d run around after two toddlers and a 7 year old. And all the time Jeff had been enjoying his afternoon naps with naked teenage porn stars being televised into his bedroom while she pushed a double stroller alongside the grocery trolley at the supermarket.
Louise laughed and laughed.
These realisations were like gifts granted to her by each advancing year. Louise remembered another event, in Sydney. It was a picnic they’d been invited to with friends Louise had made in the neighbourhood and who had been very friendly and inclusive towards Jeff. At the picnic, Louise had sat down and accepted a glass of wine. It was a spot to which she and the other woman, Geetha, often brought their kids after school, but on those occasions there was too much racing around after the kids to enjoy the backdrop of the Kuring-Gai Chase National Park – or, as Louise thought of it, the “Skippy the Bush Kangaroo” setting.
Geetha’s husband, John, had collected the four younger kids and invited Jeff to join him in taking them all on a walk. Jeff had gone too, but came back and snarled at Louise for drinking in front of the children.
Louise had been very upset, and allowed Jeff to make their excuses and go home earlier than had been planned. Jeff had gone straight to bed when they had gotten home, and Louise and the kids had quietly watched a movie in the family room. Louise had felt guilty about having the wine and worried that she was a bad mother.
But now, 12 years later, Louise realised that what had angered Jeff was that he had been expected to do the child minding for those hours at the picnic, and it had exhausted him. In his mind, that was Louise’s job, not his! However, not even Jeff had the effrontery to say so at the time, so he camouflaged his anger in any criticism he could make of his wife, and as usual, Louise had fallen for it.
What was wrong with her? Why was she so non-critical of Jeff and so accepting of criticism herself? Did she have low-self-esteem or was she just stupid? Now, looking back, Louise thought that she had been young and nice and inexperienced, while Jeff had been old and cranky and onto his third wife – Louise.
When Louise remembered these things it made her resent Jeff in a way she’d hadn’t resented him when they had split. Now that she understood the behind-the-scenes happenings over the years of their marriage, it not only explained so many frustrating times, but made her angry that she had allowed the days of her young motherhood to be dominated by an omnipresent fear of her husband’s mercurial mood.
What kind of relationship had they had, really? Had Louise lived in a make-believe world of home cooking and homework; of neighbours and neighbourhood parties; of birthdays and holidays? Had she dragged Jeff along, unwilling and unhappy, to stand beside her and her children, while he endured each moment, desperate to escape back to his own world?
A world of naked, compliant young women he never had to meet.
Work was where Jeff felt real and work was what took Jeff into his future. Home life – his family life – was the essential backdrop to prove his success on another level; an insurance policy to ensure that he had another place of importance in the world. His wife, his children, his house – all facets of an environment in which to sleep and keep his work clothes clean. He must have read about it somewhere, or seen it on TV. How else would he know? All Jeff’s friends were at the office; he repeated his conversations to Louise, but did not invite her comments. If she offered one, he quickly let her know that she could make no meaningful contribution, being entirely outside of the office experience in her suburban world of children and neighbours and doctor’s visits and schools.
It was odd that now that Louise understood her husband, in a way she never had while living with him, she had no desire to be near him. She didn’t want to talk to him or impress him or even tell him that she now understood. She was simply sorry that she had wasted so much effort wanting him to be happy with her. This was her one-and-only life, and she’d wasted 15 years of it trying to please a man who was unhappy because she stood between him and his relaxing internet activities. That had been her great crime in their marriage, and she hadn’t even known.
But she should have been smarter than that. And there was no real reason that she had to understand why he was always angry with her. She should have seen his anger and been immediately repelled by it. Understanding it was not a pre-requisite for an appropriate and healthy response.
It was her egotistical expectation of a rational explanation that was the real cause of her wasted prime-of-life years. To Louise’s mind, now, Jeff had simply been selfish. But she was being egotistically, to think that she could fix their marital problems.
It was the function of the problem-solver in her. Other women, like Jeff’s first and second wives, might detach themselves quickly and absolutely from a bad-tempered, selfish partner, but not Louise. No – Louise hung on and tried to fix the situation. She didn’t take his behaviour personally – she decided that this was a character flaw in him – that was how she explained it to her kids and her sisters when they demanded to know why she couldn’t talk on the phone or meet with them on the weekend. And everyone knew that the family was greater than the sum of its parts. Didn’t they?
But that was no excuse. Louise herself knew that a dysfunctional family was one in which a member – any member – was subjugated to allow another member or members to behave as they liked, regardless of the negative impact that behaviour was having on their co-family member. Louise’s other error was in not identifying that this was Jeff’s nature; not an episode because he was 50 when he first became a father, and probably too old to have children; or because he was stressed out at work; or because he was unwell. He was behaving badly because he didn’t care about Louise’s feelings and knew she wouldn’t blame him for it, and this was his nature. He was by nature a bad-tempered, critical person. He wasn’t thoughtful or kind or self-sacrificing. That was Louise’s role.
It had happened slowly, over a long period of time. At first Louise had thought that she just needed some “space” – that requirement people had to remove themselves from the place where dramatic events caused conflict in their lives, and so they became confused about what they should be doing to improve their lot. Once she had acquired and experienced some of this “space”, she would gain clarity of vision about her future in general, and her future relationships in particular.
When she thought of a relationship, she thought of being with a new man. Someone attractive, whom she admired, and who valued her as a person.
At first, she had been busy re-ordering their lives, so that the new single-parent regime worked smoothly, that she didn’t have time to put very much effort into being a single woman who might like to have a relationship.
But then she got some new clothes and remembered to smile when she met people. Not just men – everyone. You had to be the person you wanted people to see when they met you. She’d read that somewhere.
And she did meet men – at work, and when she was shopping. But they were other people’s husbands. Of course, she had to expect that. She lived in the suburbs, after all. And she was 50 – most people her age were married, and if they weren’t, they didn’t live in Blackburn. They lived in Richmond or the Docklands – aka “Divorcelands”.
Unfortunately, despite knowing people personally who had met a suitable marriage partner on internet dating sites, on the sporadic occasions that Louise gave these sites a try, she only met men who lied about their age and education and were still angry with their ex-wives.
Therefore, internet dating was not satisfactory except to prove the law of diminishing returns, so Louise assessed her future realistically.
She summed up her assessment a few years after her divorce. “I’m not going to have another romantic involvement.”
And there it was. At age 50, with three reasonably mature kids, Louise was facing the future as a single woman.
But as it turned out, her life was full of relationships with interesting, attractive people whom she really enjoyed being with and who valued her very highly as a person: her three children.
James, at age 22, was still a full-time student studying a master’s degree.
Peter, at 15, had a large circle of friends, did well at his academically rigorous school and played sport with more gusto than talent; but he was committed and enthusiastic: both essential qualities in a teenage team player.
And 16 year old Camille – her dyslexic, shy, gawky daughter – had blossomed into a willowy blonde artist who wore Dolce Gabana tinted glasses to read Charlotte Bronte novels on her Kindle.
All three of them lived, and entertained their friends, at home. All three of them focussed on achieving a set level of academic success. None of them aspired to perfect results; but each required a certain level of achievement to maintain their personal status. In short, they were internally motivated and Louise was greatly relieved to know it.
Whenever she thought of ‘meeting someone’, it was never in a wistful moment because they didn’t exist. When she was married, and upset and lonely, the wistful moments had been a good portion of her day. But now – life was so pleasant and so interesting that all the moments were full and happy.
She only ever thought of ‘meeting someone’ when she got together with her divorced friends and family. Even the ones who had regrouped and formed new, blended families, seemed intent on discovering Louise’s current status in this regard.
But where would she slot another person – a man – into her life? There were only 24 hours in a day and she currently had none to spare, especially at night.
“But your kids are old enough,” her sister Jane had insisted. “You can leave them at home at night.”
It was true; she could have left them at home at night quite safely. But there was more to it than that.
When Jeff had first left, apart from the relief, Louise had also felt the spaces in her life and their home. She used to look forward to 6pm when Jeff would arrive home. Not because he was pleasant company – but because his arrival gave shape to the household day. It was like the tide. By the time Jeff arrived home, the dinner had to be an hour away from being ready, and all the errands and outdoor commitments should be completed.
When he stopped coming home, the day became mooshy and no one quite knew when anything would happen. At one point, even dinner became an elastic event. Louise had had to insist that they meet at the table for dinner at a set time each day. She used the excuse that she wanted to cook one meal and clean up after it so her day was finished rather than dragging on all night, but in reality what she really wanted was this one orderly meeting of the family. Alright, so it wasn’t always orderly – but it was regular. That was something.
They each had a computer in their bedroom, except for Louise. Her computer was in the kitchen. So, unless they were eating or socialising, the kids were in their bedrooms when they were at home. Most evenings, Louise spent her evenings sitting alone in the lounge room; either watching TV, talking on the phone to her sister, or reading a book. But frequently one or two or all of the kids would tell her something or ask her something or be telling or asking each other something that she would overhear. This kept them connected in a way Facebook never would.
Like the time Camille had received a Facebook message from a boy who had previously dumped her without explanation. Camille had showed first Louise, and then James the message, and they had all discussed what her reaction should be. In the end, James’ insight into the mind of a 16 year old young man, and his treatment of and attitudes towards young women like Camille, had been both informative and decisive. They may not always agree, Louise thought, but when it came to sexual politics in the 21st century, her kids trusted one another’s judgement.
“If a child has to choose between their parent being absent and having fun; and their parent being in the next room having a nervous breakdown, they will choose that their parent be in the next room.” Louise recalled hearing this said by an amusing psychologist who was speaking on the subject of ‘quality time’ – the much lauded retort of the working mother to her critics. And Louise was not convinced that quality time excused the need for quantity time. Parenting was a relationship, and like a relationship, it changed because the needs of the people changed. When they are babies, children need safety, security, constant teaching and feeding. It is a 24-7 job for several people. Those people may or may not be the parents, but the work must be performed constantly for years.
Thank god for school. It provided a good portion of the care required by children aged between 8 and 18. But if school looks after 6 hours, and sleep takes care of 8 hours – what of the remaining 10 hours? Even if you take out an hour for grooming and an hour for meal times, there are still 8 active hours for each child in each day. And on the weekend – you have to add back the 6 school hours.
It all adds up.
Louise remembered growing up when both her parents worked full time. Her mother had returned to work when she was in Year 4. After that, Louise always took the long way home. She dropped in at friend’s houses whose mothers were there; and she dawdled the rest of the way to her house. She was the eldest and the other four – all noisy and active; all watching TV or playing – were always around, but there was really no one there for Louise. The house felt empty till her mother got home. Why was that?
She remembered the lady next door, Mrs Dempsey, telling Louise that hers was the nicest house in the street, and that being beside Louise’s house had increased the value of their own home. Louise couldn’t take it in. Mrs Dempsey was a housewife. She baked the most delicious things she called “slices” and always had a container full of them. Her daughter was Louise’s best friend and classmate – they were both girls; both the eldest of five; and they lived next door to one another. But the similarities stopped there. Mrs Dempsey stayed at home and baked treats for her family. Their house was warm and clean and their mother was always there.
Louise’s home was big and cold and empty, except for all the kids. She envied the Dempsey kids their comfortable home. Louise kept waiting for the nice part to start, when having a beautiful house would be enjoyable. It didn’t seem to ever come. The weekdays were to be endured and the weekends were spent quietly not waking up their parents, who slept in till 2pm; or helping her mother shop for the coming week, or doing the laundry.
Louise much preferred the Dempsey’s house, too. It was warmer and cleaner more of the time. It wasn’t till she was older that Louise realised that that was a function of Mrs Dempsey’s presence as much as any failure of the architecture of her own home.
“We’re getting married!” It was Louise’s younger sister, Jane.
Louise knew that this was very exciting news. David was a steady, loving partner, father and step-father; he was a good provider; and a sociable guy. He gave Jane whatever she wanted. There was just one thing he wouldn’t give her – and that was what she wanted more than anything else.
He refused to marry her.
“I can’t marry you,” David had explained. “You’ve had your family and can’t have any more kids. I haven’t had my family yet.”
“I can get my tubes untied!” Jane had never had such a deep “marital” conversation with David before. She felt close to achieving this great thing – marrying the man she loved and admired. So – there was a concrete reason that he hadn’t wanted to marry her! She felt huge relief, and knew that she could solve this problem.
David was disbelieving. “You can?” He gulped. He blinked. “Are you sure?”
Jane nodded. “Leave it to me,” she said.
So, she had had her tubes untied. Louise was surprised. Was Jane seriously lining up for a fifth child at the age of 40?
“That doesn’t mean you will be able to get pregnant, though,” David warned Jane. “After all, you are 40 now.”
But Jane went ahead and had the reversal and was pregnant within 3 months. She shrugged. “When you’re fertile, you’re fertile!” was her only comment.
Still, David recoiled from the marriage plans.
“But isn’t this what you wanted?” Jane demanded when she announced her pregnancy and asked David whether they should marry before the birth, or wait till after.
“I don’t want to get married to a pregnant bride!” David was definite. “I’ve never been married before – I want it to be right!”
Jane thought about it. “It would be more fun if I wasn’t pregnant,” she agreed. “Alright – let’s wait till the baby is born, and I’ve got my figure back.”
David smiled. “Yes, let’s,” he agreed.
So, Ryan was born and of course Jane filled out his birth certificate so that he had his father’s surname. They were a family.
But somehow the marriage never happened. Even Jeff shook his head on the many occasions that Jane would call Louise and bemoan her unmarried state. “She made a tactical error when she allowed Ryan to have David’s surname,” Jeff said.
“Do you think so?” Louise was surprised.
“Of course! Why else would David get married? There is no benefit to him. He already has Jane, and a home with her and his son – who already has his name. Why would he marry now when he has never shown any inclination to marry before? She had what it took to get him to the altar and she blew it.”
“Wow!” Louise was surprised to hear her husband’s view on the matter. “I’d better tell Jane.”
The years rolled by and Jane and David prospered. They renovated their elegant and spacious home; they had the pool area re-landscaped. David bought Jane a European sports car. David bought Jane a diamond ring. David took Jane and their son on a 3 month tour of Europe, during the peak season. But he refused to get married.
Then, one day, he turned to her and said “The house looks good. Why don’t we get married here?”
Jane looked at him. He looked the same. She gulped. She blinked. “Yes,” she said. “Let’s.”
But Louise wanted the details. “What changed his mind?”
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” said Jane. “Are you coming?”
“Can I be the maid of honour?” asked Louise.
“No, I’m not having any attendants,” answered Jane. “Besides, you were my maid of honour last time, and look how that turned out!”
“Don’t blame me!” Louise was indignant. “No one could believe it when you were dating Sam. I wouldn’t have even danced with him – let alone marry the man!”
“I was young,” Jane replied.
“No one is that young.”
“Whatever. So you’re coming?”
“Yes! Of course!” Louise answered excitedly. “But I still want to know What Happened to change David’s attitude.
She would never know. David didn’t tell anyone. But there was a good reason.
He had been in a meeting with his employer. David and Paul had been contracting as Information Technology specialists to government departments for a number of years. It was a profitable arrangement. They worked hard and often around the clock, but the money was good and the team reliable so it was a worthwhile operation. Being a contractor meant that they had to negotiate all their own “conditions” – the things employees took for granted, like leave loading, holiday pay, retirement and superannuation funding. Paul had invited Ross, a retirement and taxation specialist, in to discuss their situation, and David decided to consult him privately, too.
They met at Ross’s office and after exchanging pleasantries, Ross asked David how he could help him.
“I want to ask you how I should set up my financial situation.” David explained that he and Jane had a son, and that she had four children from her marriage, and that she was divorced.
“So,” said Ross, “Jane has been married before?”
“Yes, but she has been divorced for 10 years.”
“What are the ages of her first family?” Ross was writing it down.
David thought. “Let’s see. Jeremy is 25, Rachel is 24, Emily is 20, and Felicity is 16. Felicity lives with us,” he explained.
“And when were you two married?”
“We started living together 10 years ago.”
“And the date of your marriage?”
“We are not married.”
“Were you married before too?” Ross asked.
“No,” answered David.
“So, Jane has five children and you have one.”
“Well, I have two really, since Felicity has always lived with us and she was only 4 when we met.”
“But you are not married to her mother.”
“And the house is in both your names?”
“No, just mine.”
Ross looked up. “Did you buy it before you met Jane?”
“No,” answered David. “But Jane’s ex-husband quit his job as soon as they separated and she has paid so much child support for the past 10 years, I didn’t want to get our assets mixed up in all that.”
“So now that the child support has stopped, and you have safeguarded your assets by not marrying Jane so that the Child Support Agency can’t include your income in their assessment, you are wondering how to ensure that your own son – and Felicity, whom you regard as your step-daughter – will be financially secure if anything should happen to you.”
David smiled. He had consulted the right person. Good. “Yes,” he said.
Ross put down his pen and looked at David. “Well, there are a number of ways you can do it,” he said. “You could use a family trust structure, and put the house into the trust, but you would have to pay stamp duty on it.”
“I’ve already paid stamp duty though!” David was puzzled.
“Yes, I’m sure you have. But if the asset – the house – is to have a new owner – the trust – the new owner must also pay stamp duty.”
“For this method to be efficient, you really have to get the trust to buy the house in the first place; not transfer the house into it after you have bought it. That’s when you pay stamp duty twice.”
“I see.” David was thoughtful.
“Or, you could put Jane’s, or Ryan’s, or both names, on the house along with yours. Then, if you die, they automatically get the house.”
David looked relieved. “That sounds better,” he said.
Ross smiled at him. “But you will still have to pay stamp duty – more, if you put both their names on as equal owners.”
“What?” David was confused.
Ross explained. “Well, you only have to pay stamp duty on half the value of the house if you put Jane as joint owner; and you’d have to pay stamp duty on two thirds of the value of the house if you give both your son and his mother an equal share to yours.”
“Right.” David nodded. “I get it.”
“Or, you could marry Jane and write a will leaving her all your possessions. That would cost you whatever it costs to write a will.”
“Are you serious?” David couldn’t believe it was so simple.
“But couldn’t I just leave her the house in my will anyway? Why do I have to get married?”
“You don’t have to get married. You can just leave her the house in your will. But then her other four kids as well as Ryan can make a claim too. You will have put Jane on an equal footing with all the children who have been your dependents at one time or another. By making her your wife, you elevate her status above the children and they will only inherit after she dies, if you pre-decease her; and when you die, if she pre-deceases you.”
“So,” David wanted to clarify this, “If we are married, and Jane dies before me, I automatically inherit all her assets, even her retirement money, and her kids get nothing?”
“As her spouse, you would automatically get her retirement money.”
“That’s all she has,” David explained, “but she has a fortune in superannuation. She’s been a director in the public service for most of her working life.”
Ross continued. “But if you are not married, you are simply one of the people who would be eligible to inherit from her.”
David nodded. “I get it.” He stood up and shook Ross’s hand. “Thanks for this talk, Ross. I’ll be calling you.”
“It’s a pleasure, David.”
David left Ross’s office with his mind in a whirl. For ten years he had watched Jane paying almost half her gross income – which in fact amounted to 80% of her net income – to her ex-husband in child support. Both David and Jane had visited the kids in the caravan their father had set them up in. They never went to school and had only to call the RSL club poker machine room to find their father. It was a nightmare. Sam had moved the kids to Queensland after the divorce, leaving Jane behind in Canberra, in her well-paid job. After a court battle, Jane had at last gotten Felicity back – then four years old. Now the three oldest kids were adults and no more could be extracted from Jane in this way.
But they still begged money from her – huge amounts, regularly. It made David so angry, but Jane seemed incapable of staunching the blood-letting financial drain to her three oldest children. None of them had a career – only the oldest boy even had a job. They weren’t nice to their mother and never thanked her. David tried not to think about them but he spent a good deal of his time thinking of ways to thwart Jane’s efforts to divert money to them.
Jane had been creative, he’d give her that. His favourite was when Jane pretended that Louise needed to borrow $5,000. Louise – borrow money! David chuckled at the thought. Lou was the last person who would borrow money. If she needed money, she’s go to the bank – or her ex-husband would give it to her. But David went along with Jane’s subterfuge. At least he was making it harder for her to give those “kids” money all the time. But he bloody well wouldn’t have his assets made available to them. No way.
But – now they were adults. Only Ryan and Felicity were children – their children. David thought about it some more and made up his mind. Marriage would do it. It may not be romantic, but this was a good reason to get married and that was what David needed: a good reason. He already had everything else.
Louise picked up the phone and said “Hello?” in a polite, inquisitive tone – as one does when answering the phone.
It was Katherine calling. “He’s marrying her,” she said. Katherine’s voice was loud and strong with her anger. Louise paused for just a second, knowing immediately that Katherine meant her ex-husband, Peter, was marrying his girlfriend – what was her name?
“Leeanne,” said Katherine. “Peter and Leeanne have just announced their engagement and have set a date. It’s in two months. They want Charlotte to be their flower girl.”
“Oh,” said Louise. She knew her friend needed to vent, and she also knew it was pointless trying to diffuse Katherine’s anger.
Peter and Katherine had split 8 years previously, leaving Katherine with their two young children. Charlotte had been 2 and Allan 7. He had left her and taken up with a much younger woman – Leeanne. They had been living together since then, so it wasn’t surprising that they should marry. Louise decided in the spot that if she had to say anything, she would try that avenue.
She assessed her options and went with “Well, he made her wait long enough! They’ve been together 8 years, haven’t they?”
“Yeah,” agreed Katherine. “It just pisses me off that he fucks up my life, and just gets to float off and start anew – as though we never even happened!” Katherine fumed. “It should have been me who got remarried first! I’m the ‘good family person’. He’s just a using bastard.”
Louise had met Peter. He seemed quite nice. She had also met Leeanne, who despite having questionable taste in clothing seemed to be quite stable, too.
Leeanne was at least 35 but dressed like a 26 year old pseudo-intellectual. She had what Louise thought of as the “Carlton look”. It involved being super thin; flat chested; scraping the brown (always brown) hair into a high ponytail and wearing black plastic framed rectangular spectacles and no make-up. Clothing emphasised the lack of figure and comprised beige or black trousers, longish skirts, long sleeved T-shirts and flat shoes. Jewellery was minimal and expensive: a platinum Swiss watch and Jorge Jenson earrings – that sort of thing.
It wasn’t a look Louise had ever aspired to and couldn’t have achieved in any case, being both petite and shapely. Katherine, who also possessed a womanly figure, and had naturally fair hair with added highlights, was more Brighton than Carlton; and she openly despaired of her replacement’s fashion sense. “What if Charlotte thinks that’s how she should dress?” was her lament.
“But Katherine!” Louise couldn’t take it anymore. “Why do you feel that it is a competition? And even if it is a competition – haven’t you won?”
Katherine barked back at Louise. “How have I won?”
But Louise was ready. “You’ve succeeded! That’s winning. You’ve survived being left to raise a young family on your own; you maintained your professional career; you have a beautiful home and no mortgage; you have a great boyfriend, and you two have so much in common:- kids the same ages; all the sporting things you do together – cycling and wind surfing; and you go on terrific holidays together. You and Mike have more fun than a tampon commercial! You are financially secure, attractive and healthy – and your kids are growing up into lovely young people! What’s Peter got? A skinny girlfriend who can’t dress her age or ever look forward to doing age-appropriate things, like losing her figure giving birth.” Louise heard the sniff that followed two big tears rolling down Katherine’s face.
“I didn’t deserve to be left like that,” she sobbed.
“Didn’t you kick him out?”
“So? We were married! He should have worked at coming back. We had two little kids and a home. I didn’t deserve to be left while he goes off and gets married in Tahiti.” She sniffed loudly and hung up the phone. Then she sat up straight, pushing her hair away from her face. She pulled out her mobile phone again and punched in a number. “Mike? It’s Katherine…. Hi. Let’s get engaged…. Yes…. Don’t worry, I’ll buy the ring….”
It was around this time that Louise realised that her friend Katherine was very competitive; and that she, Louise, was the perfect antidote to all Katherine’s self-perceived failings. First of all, Louise was a few years older than Katherine, and therefore technically less desirable as a marriage partner. Secondly, Louise’s house was smaller than Katherine’s, and a townhouse – not a stand-alone building in its own yard.
Thirdly and most importantly, Louise had not had a boyfriend since her husband. And in Katherine’s world, couple-status alone signified success. To be a single adult was to be unsuccessful, and Louise was Katherine’s Sharon Strezlecki – the friend to whom she could compare herself and always look better by comparison. Louise shrugged at the thought.
They’d met in Canberra. Jeff was there to fill a position that was moving to Melbourne within 3 months. He was heading up the operation as it packed up its Canberra office, farewelling employees who refused to move and welcoming people more suited to the relocation.
“I’ll be coming to Canberra frequently, so this won’t be good-bye,” he explained.
“I don’t do long-distance relationships.” Louise smiled but shook her head.
Jeff frowned. “Not even for me?”
“Sorry,” said Louise. She cast her mind back to Stuart, her first love, who had moved to Brisbane to wait for Louise to finish her degree but had accidently gotten engaged instead. “Women can do long-distance relationships but men can’t; and that wouldn’t make either of us happy, so let’s not.”
Jeff paused. He hadn’t expected that. For one thing, he knew Louise wasn’t hedging her bets, and there were no other men lurking nearby awaiting his departure. Was she so self-sufficient that she preferred being on her own to being in a long distance relationship? Jeff actually enjoyed the long distance romance. It allowed him to remain single at work, and at home, actually. I also allowed for romantic weekends away with a loving and familiar woman. From Jeff’s perspective, the long-distance romance offered the best of both worlds. When he was at home, he could tell the local girl he had to go away for a conference, and when he was away, he was returning to an already established relationship, and was the world-weary Wall St warrior, who needed to be soothed and pandered to.
Jeff felt oddly depleted. How did Louise know that men who lived interstate were not… would still… how did she know?
“So, you don’t trust me,” he said.
“I trust you to behave like most men when they are on their own, away from home” Louise answered. But she could see that Jeff was hurt. “Look,” she said, “I don’t want to make a general sweeping statement about “all men”, because you can’t do that; but I worked at Defence and spent a lot of time with the uniformed personnel, doing costings for military exercises. Many of these were in Asia. Before the guys left we would make sure they had their shots and their condoms. And when they came back we made sure they had their penicillin – until HIV hit. Then we ran tests for anyone who wanted them, including the wives. And they were upstanding, married, family men.” She paused, not smiling, and spoke gently but firmly. “I don’t do long distance relationships because men don’t remain faithful to a woman who lives in another city. To a lot of men, sex is like eating. Even if they prefer home cooking, they will eat the local food rather than go hungry.”
“So,” said Jeff, “Now I’m ‘most men’?”
Louise sighed. “I’m not getting involved with a long-distance relationship Jeff and you won’t be able to talk me into it.”
Jeff believed her. He liked her because she wasn’t being catty about it; or even being critical. She was being candid and she had clearly given this some thought. An experience with a past love, no doubt. And he found himself liking her mostly because she was smart.
“Come with me,” he said to Louise.
“I can’t!” Louise protested. “I have a career; I have family; I have this house to pay off!”
“Sure.” Louise shook her head.
“We haven’t even lived together yet!”
“We can live together then.”
“Didn’t you hear me? I have a career and a-“
“So it has to be marriage.” Jeff felt stronger again. Now he was showing her that he could figure her out as easily as she had him. “Women go where their husbands go. It happens every day. Don’t you trust me to look after you?” Louise was momentarily speechless. No one had ever offered to look after her before. Jeff kept going. “You can let this house and it will pay itself off. Can you arrange a wedding within six weeks?”
“Yes,” Louise answered meekly.
“Good. Then I’ll organise the honeymoon. Beach or city?”
“OK then,” and he smiled and kissed her.
That had been the beginning. They’d married, and then it had begun. The constant uprooting and moving and house-hunting and school enrolments and finding new doctors and dentists and mechanics and friends.
Having lived in Canberra so long, for Louise this was, at first, a welcome change. It had been exciting when they’d moved from Canberra to Melbourne, and less than two years later, to Washington D.C. for four years. From D.C. they’d moved to Sydney for three years; then back to Melbourne for two years. Moving had definitely lost its allure by the time they’d left Melbourne for the second time in ten years to spend two more years in the United States – in Des Moines, Iowa, this time; so no chance to re-connect with friends previously made while they were in D.C. When at last they returned to Melbourne from Iowa, it was the third time they’d done so. So, they’d moved to Melbourne more than to anywhere else. It was a sign. It was something.
Of course, when Louise married Jeff, she didn’t know that this was her future. She should have figured it out – she could have figured it out. Jeff had not had any job for more than 2 years. He had lived all over the world – his father was a governor for the U.S. State Department, and they’d been moving every few years since he was born. Jeff had grown up in Rhodesia, Iran, Viet Nam, Japan, both sides of the United States – and now, as an adult, he was unable to remain in one place for longer than two years.
Louise hadn’t understood that the blood of a nomad is stirred by new prospects and becomes sluggish and clotted when denied the freedom to roam. She enjoyed the adventure of new people and places but knew that a stable geographic environment offered security and better access to the network required for raising a family. Nor had she understood the force, the irresistible pull on the nomad, which was the next location.
And the day finally dawned. It was a sparkling day. Louise let all the kids sleep in. She checked the transport arrangements. She called the reception venue and made sure that the vegetarian option would be available for Peter.
The phone rang and Louise answered it with trepidation. Last minute phone calls were not welcome. They introduced an element of risk to the orderly planning which was unwanted. “Hello?” Her tone was warily inquisitive. Her smile relaxed her face. “Yes, fine – see you there!” They entered the gothic building and watched the afternoon sun filter into the room through the old windows. The organist played an aria which perfectly complimented the importance and excitement being felt by the guests. It was slow yet light. The doors remained open, welcoming and waiting for the main vent.
And then they were there. First came the masters, in their various academic gowns and berets and hoods, some plumed, some furred, others velvet and tassled. Then the students filed in and took their seats. The dean described the work of the doctoral students. One had discovered a reliable indicator for breast cancer. Another had worked on the impact of area design in hospitals and how this impacted on recovery rates. The descriptions were succinct and fascinating.
Then the students began accepting their parchments. There were only 300 in this batch – the graduations were staggered over weeks so that each ceremony was rich in relevance and devoid of boredom – so different to Louise’s graduations. Her parents were numb after she received her B.A., and flatly refused to come to her graduate degree ceremony 10 years later. She silently thanked the genius who had shredded the single graduation day into these charming cameo events.
It was early December, and the grounds at Melbourne University were as beautiful as they could be. Everything that bloomed did; and the sunlight sparkled on the shining windows of the old sandstone buildings. The grass had recovered its pre-drought green and a huge marquee was set out beside the graduation hall.
Louise was glad that they were all dressed in their best day-time outfits. “Let’s find some good photo backdrops,” she said. They’d gone from the set of arched halls to the clock tower forecourt, and taken photos of James in his robes and his brother and sister standing proudly at each side. Other families were similarly engaged, and Louise took photos for a family group who did the same for her.
Louise looked at her three children through the lens as they posed for a photograph. James stood proudly in his academic gown; Camille and Peter stood on either side of him, shining and smiling, knowing that one day they, too, would wear the robes and graduate from university while their family watched proudly. Louise was full of joy and contentment as she took the photo. “This is what it’s all about,” she thought to herself.
It was a meeting of such importance that the Program Manager, Paul, had cancelled classes for two hours so that all the teachers could attend. That was the only way to ensure that everyone showed up, he realised. If he held it after hours, too many teachers had family commitments that couldn’t be changed. But a meeting held in work time was a sure thing. They were being paid and had to attend.
There were 32 teachers in Business Programs. Eight of these had been there for 25 or more years and they alone were employed on a full-time, on-going basis. Only these people had job security. Of the remaining 24 teachers, 10 were on contracts which ran from semester to semester; while the rest were “sessional teachers”. These poor folk were paid only for the hours they taught. It was true that they were paid at a higher hourly rate than the others; but they were not paid holiday, nor sick leave; and the superannuation contribution they received was also less.
Louise was employed on a contract. Once you had been on four consecutive contracts, your employer was obliged to either employ you as “on-going” or let you go. Louise was almost at the end of her forth contract.
“Right,” Paul smiled around the room. His facial muscles twitched at the effort this took and he appeared to be baring his teeth rather than smiling. The whole effect was disconcerting. No one smiled back, but they were silenced.
Paul began his address. “As you know, we are constantly under attack from the students, the Department of Education and the community for becoming out-of-touch with our student base. We need more young teachers; more diversity among our staff; and more flexibility within our ranks. We can’t rely on a set base of staff that will be with us for their whole careers.” The eight ongoing staff members, all of whom were aged between 55 and 65, looked at each other uncomfortably. “We need people who are still practicing their profession and teach here part-time; or people who are taking a break from their profession for one reason or another and coupling that with a few years of part-time teaching.”
Joe, the most senior on-going staff member, raised his hand. “If we only have part-time staff, what will that do to the continuity of our courses?”
The manager smiled. “We are now under the strict jurisdiction of the national regulator and we are only delivering training – whether at certificate, diploma or degree level. We are no longer in the business of designing courses, so the continuity will be assured through applying national standards in line with the professions and adhering to national training packages. In fact, going forward, a good portion of each course will comprise self-directed online learning which won’t take place on campus at all.”
Paul waited for this to sink in, and continued. “Consequently, those of you who might have been considering retirement are encouraged to make your arrangements sooner rather than later and we have designed some financial lures to retirement, should that be your preference.”
“Surely that only applies to the ongoing staff?” Barry asked.
Paul nodded. “Yes. But any ongoing staff that are not going to be needed next semester, and choose not to retire, will be given positions elsewhere in the college.”
There were loud rumblings at this statement. Many of the eight on-going incumbents had worked in Business Programs on the 3rd floor of Building 8 since it moved there. They looked down on the other, lesser programs and shuddered to think that they may be employed teaching a short-course to bored housewives in a program where they had no seniority. “No decisions have been made yet,” Paul insisted “but I wanted to give you all the information I got from my meeting with the CEO yesterday.”
Megan, who was on a contract like Louise, raised her hand. “What about those of us who have been on contracts for a while?” she asked.
“Aagh,” answered Paul. “Yes. Contracts will be phased out, and a greater proportion of our staff will be employed on a sessional basis. There will be an advertisement for two full-time teaching positions. We will employ two teachers as on-going, once two teachers from the current batch of on-going retire due to age. Our plan is to reduce on-going teaching staff to four, and have everyone else employed as sessionals.”
Louise felt relieved. As the most highly qualified and professionally experienced person in the program, she knew she was safe.
“Have you applied for your job?” Barry asked as he held the door to their staffroom open for Louise.
Louise sighed and nodded her head. “Have you?” she asked.
“Yes. I just dropped it off.”
“When do you think they will hold interviews?” Louise began unloading her bag of books and switched on her computer as she spoke. Barry, who sat at the desk beside her, was doing the same.
“Soon, I’d say.” Barry finished his unpacking. “Good luck anyway.”
“You, too,” said Louise.
Louise wasn’t particularly concerned about the advertisement for the position she held, but she understood the procedure and updated her resume, addressed the selection criteria and submitted her application. When interviewed, she gave the names of her current subject co-ordinators as her referees, knowing that they would give favourable reports of her ability to teach a variety of final year subjects, set exams, provide feedback and results in a timely manner and generally contribute to the college as a reliable staff member.
She’d also just finished the Diploma in Vocational Education and Training which was now required.
On the day of the announcement she was once again greeted by Barry.
“Louise,” he said. His voice was steady but his tone was grave. “Did you see who they chose for the job?”
“No,” said Lou. “Who?”
Louise was confused. “Which position?”
“There was only one in the end. They didn’t fill the other one. Michelle got it.”
“Michelle?” Louise was confused. The only Michelle she was aware of was Michelle Hope. She, along with Barry and Louise, was a contract teacher, but Michelle only had a degree; a bachelor’s degree. She did not have a graduate degree; nor did she have any professional accounting experience whatsoever. She was not a CPA, a Chartered Accountant, nor a registered tax agent.
“But Michelle can’t teach the degree course – you have to have a higher qualification than the one you are teaching, so she can only teach advanced diploma students and below. Who will teach the degree students?” Louise asked, confused.
In fact, Louise knew that she was only staff member who could teach in the degree simply because no one else had the required qualifications. She was shocked to think that Michelle, barely 30 years of age and far less qualified and experienced than she, had been given the job over her.
Barry shrugged. “You know how they are always saying that the teachers are getting too old and they need younger people. I guess they’ll offer us sessional work, but they think we are too old to get a contract.”
“What?” Louise’s eyebrows were shooting off her face. “Too old? “I’m 50! How can I have a bachelor’s degree, a graduate degree, and be a CPA with 15 years of professional experience and still be 30? That’s ridiculous!”
And she marched down to the manager’s office.
“Paul,” Louise entered his office and closed the door. At any other time, Paul would not have allowed anyone to enter his office uninvited and certainly would not have allowed them to remain there. However, seeing Louise and sensing her indignation he attempted one of his “wolf in sheep’s clothing” smiles – quite a disturbing sight – and gestured to Louise to sit down.
“Louise, I was going to request an interview with you, so I’m glad you’ve stopped by.”
“I see you appointed Michelle to the position,” she said.
“Yes,” Paul nodded happily, “but there will be plenty of sessional work available, as I said.”
“So, it’s December 20th,” Louise continued, “and I just now find out that my contract, which is ending in 10 days, won’t be renewed. So, even if I was stupid enough to accept a sessional position, I would not receive a pay cheque until mid-February of next year.”
Paul looked at her in surprise. “But we will offer you sessional work then, Louise – of course we will.”
“No.” Louise stood. “I won’t be working as a sessional. Find someone else.” And she turned and walked out the door.
She could hear the stunned silence as she walked purposefully to the door.
Paul stood at his door, and made a gesture to Zoe. Zoe called after her, trying to put a laugh into her voice to lighten the mood. “Louise, wait,” she said. “We’ll have a coffee downstairs and talk about it.”
“No time, thanks Zoe,” and Louise sailed out the door.
“What are you going to do?” Louise and Julia were sitting in Lou’s courtyard enjoying a glass of wine while Lou brought her friend up-to-date with the happenings of her day.
“I’m going to write my memoirs,” said Louise.
Julia laughed. But Louise stopped her. “No – really! I’ve already started a book, and I’m going to finish it.”
“Yes. I’ve always wanted to write a novel. Now’s my chance.”
“But seriously,” Julia frowned in disbelief. “How will you pay the bills?”
Louise shrugged. “I don’t have very many. I was taking a look at the budget last week, when Jeff emailed me his proposed divorce settlement. It will be more than enough to pay off my debts and supplement my super; and Jeff pays for all our holidays. The child support will cover our living expenses, so we are fine, thanks to Jeff!”
“But won’t you be bored?”
“Bored?” Louise laughed. “Just because I don’t have to scramble out of bed every morning, in time to the factory bell? No way! It’ll be lovely!” Louise put back her head and sighed to the night sky. “I’ll have time to be a real “stay-at-home mother”, as it’s now called. I’ll be able to volunteer at the schools; go to the gym; play bridge; and finish my book.”
“I can’t see it,” said Julia.
Louise shrugged and re-filled their glasses. “If they think for one minute that they can cheat me out of my summer holiday pay and have me back there teaching for them, they are in for a shock. Teaching young adults is one of the most stressful jobs I’ve ever had. If they take away the paid holidays, there’s no point in doing it. In fact, the holidays are essential recovery time, if you ask me!”
“But what will they do?” Julia was puzzled. “Clearly they weren’t expecting to lose you. They’ll get you back there.”
“No, but they will find another bunny. There are plenty of female accountants out there who have taken a couple of years off to have kids, and just want a few hours’ work a week. They’ll be drawn into it, same as me, thinking that it will lead to something. By the time they find out it doesn’t lead anywhere, they will have been teaching for a couple of years and it will be time to find someone new.”
“I see,” Julia sipped her wine. “I’m so glad I left,” Louise smiled at her. She raised her glass and said “Here’s to my early retirement!”
“Sure – why not?” said Julia, and clinked her friend’s glass.
“Dad’s got a girlfriend.” Camille announced this to her mother on one of their regular walks through the suburban streets around their home. Louise glanced at her daughter, who was forcing her eyes to stay focussed on the ground in front of her while still trying to look at her mother from under her lashes.
Louise smiled to herself. “Oh, that’s nice,” she said. “What’s her name?”
“Ruth,” answered Camille.
“Ruth?” Louise was surprised. “Is she Asian?”
Camille frowned. “I don’t think so,” she answered. “Why?”
Louise shrugged. “Well, it’s an old woman’s name, Ruth. So either she is 65 –“
“Well, Dad is 65, so maybe she is!” Camille laughed.
“Yeah, right,” her mother laughed back. “But I’ve noticed that lots of Chinese Australians give their kids names from the previous generation – like Henry or Winnie or Doris. Names my parent’s generation used – like Ruth. I have an Aunty Ruth. Actually, she’s my great-aunt.”
Camille took this in but didn’t respond.
“Or,” Louise continued, “she could be Jewish, because Ruth is an old testament name.”
“Or she could just be your age and be named Ruth.”
“Yes,” Lou smiled at her daughter. “That’s entirely possible.”
“Why do you analyse everything, Mum?” Camille was teasing her.
Louise shrugged. “I have no idea, Camille. Some people do crosswords, I suppose.” They walked in silence for a while; then Louise continued. “Or it might be because there is so much information out there, just being thrown around, and we aren’t even aware of most of it. The older I get, the more I am able to reflect on past events in my life that I didn’t fully understand at the time – or understand at all, but I can understand now.”
“Like what?” Camille was interested.
Louise tried to think of a situation involving Camille. “Well, you, for instance. When you started school, you couldn’t read when the other kids had all learned. In the winter holidays, July, I bought some coloured cardboard and markers and wrote out the alphabet and basic words and within 5 days, you could read.”
Camille was still listening. Louise continued.
“I wrongly deduced, from that experience, that you didn’t learn in a classroom environment, so we got a tutor for you, remember?”
“Yes,” groaned Camille.
“But what was really happening was the coloured cardboard. You couldn’t read the black print on white paper – you still can’t. It had nothing to do with the one-on-one teaching, or the classroom, and everything to do with the coloured cardboard. I was looking for a solution but because I didn’t understand the problem, I identified an irrelevant piece of data and confused it with the real answer. And it was right there, staring me in the face. I just didn’t know.”
“So,” said Camille, “what’s that got to do with Ruth?”
“Nothing!” laughed Lou. “But the only information I have about her is that she is a woman living in London who is clearly single, and she is probably 50ish but she has the name of a woman 30 years older than that. So, I’m making do!”
“Do all people your age do that – analyse every little thing?”
Louise shook her head. “No. I’m sure they don’t.”
“You’re weird,” Camille shook her head.
“And the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, dear daughter.”
“I’ve bought you a birthday present,” Jane had telephoned at her usual time and sounded excited. While being generous aunties, Louise and Jane did not usually exchange birthday gifts, so Louise was naturally surprised and just a bit suspicious.
“How come?” was her ungracious response.
But Jane was ready for her. “Well, obviously you are never going to meet anyone on your own,” she began.
“Obviously,” Louise rolled her eyes at the phone.
“So,” Jane continued, “I’ve bought you a seat at a Speed Dating event near you!” She was using her best marketing voice as she made her announcement.
“Speed dating! You know – they did it on Kath and Kim. Kim and Sharon went and –“
“I know what it is,” explained Louise. “How much was it?”
“$90,” said Jane. “Now all you –“
“$90!” Louise exclaimed. “Wow – you really are desperate, aren’t you?”
“No, silly – YOU are the one who is desperate. I’ve got Dave.”
“Oh, yeah, right; I’m the desperate one.”
“Yes. Anyway, it’s next Wednesday night, so what are you going to wear?”
“Oh my god,” Louise groaned.
“There are 12 men and 12 women, aged between 48 and 55; and you all get to speak to one another for 8 minutes. They have categories, so I chose “University Educated Singles” for you. And you have to go because it cost me ninety bucks!” And with that, Jane hung up.
She wore a navy and white printed jersey wrap-around dress which was both conservative and feminine. The event was held in a bar in Prahran which had clearly been booked for the 2 hours it would take to speed-date 24 people. Louise walked in with what she hoped looked like cheerful defiance, and met the young women who were in charge of the evening. They both looked like super-models and were very charming. “I’ll bet the men will be sorry these girls are not among the prospective dates,” thought Louise.
But when she saw the men, she thought that they were probably relieved. Even they must have been aware that they would not come close to matching with these strong young women. The male speed daters were either short or fat. None of them was less than 50 years old and one or two looked closer to 60 than 55. There were two men who were neither short nor fat, and appeared to be around the 50 years age group, so Louise decided to play along.
The event began with a glass of sparkling wine and some very nice hors d’oeuvres. “Try these,” a female participant with an English accent passes Louise another plate, clearly identifying her as a hungry speedster.
Louise smiled shamefacedly at her. “Thanks,” she said.
“I’m Prue,” said the English girl. “Have you been to one of these before?”
“Nope,” said Louise. “Have you?”
“Yes,” Prue smiled. “Actually I’ve met half these men already, I think.”
Louise raised her eyebrows and swallowed her mouthful before responding. “Really?” She looked around. “Have you dated any of them?”
Prue grimaced and shook her head. “No!”
“Bad luck that the same ones showed up tonight then.” Louise was thinking about the $90.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Prue. “It’s still kind of fun.”
And she was right. It was kind of fun, Louise discovered. Not $90 worth of fun, but as she hadn’t had to pay – she didn’t need to take that into consideration. Each of the 12 men was very pleasant and complimentary. “I feel as though I am a volunteer in a male charm school rehearsal,” she thought.
Only one – the most physically attractive one, Louise noticed; and the only one who really had been to university – was disheartened and difficult to engage.
“So,” he asked, “Were you left or did you leave?”
Louise checked his name tag and saw that he was Michael. “What?” she said.
“I was the fish that John West rejected,” he explained. Michael was tall and slim and nicely dressed in grey trousers, a black blazer and open-necked white shirt. He had black hair with a smattering of grey and a boyish face. Only his demeanour was dowdy.
But Louise was determined to find the Likeable Michael.
“So, what did you study at uni?” she asked. It seemed like a generally acceptable topic of conversation, since they were all designated “university graduates”, and Louise smiled at Michael.
“Law,” answered Michael gloomily. “But I’m a legal-aid lawyer – not a wealthy corporate lawyer.
“Oh,” said Louise, sitting back slightly. “I see,” she added, thinking that Oh might have been an inadequate response but quite unable to think of another.
Michael nodded gloomily. “You look very nice,” he said. “You probably left your husband.” Michael was warming to his topic. “Statistics show that in 85% of cases, it’s the wife who leaves the marriage if it has lasted longer than 12 years.”
“Yes,” agreed Louise. “I read that somewhere.”
“Doesn’t say much for us husbands, does it?”
Louise sighed. It was just her luck that the only decent looking, professional man in the room was still depressed about his divorce. She could console him, thus enabling him to wallow in self-pity; or ditch him now and make a run for it.
“No – oh, look – time’s up!” Louise didn’t care that she sounded relieved; and a lot perkier than she should after hearing his tale of woe.
“Oh,” he said, looking around. “Well, nice to-“
“Yep, off you go! Bye!” And Louise turned to greet the next man, avoiding Michael’s mournful gaze.
At the end of the evening, Louise made her way to the toilets and bumped into Prue. “Hi – how did you go?” she asked.
Prue smirked. “Look, I can’t hang about, but here’s my number. Call me – we’ll get together for a drink and swap notes.”
“Great!” Louise took the card Prue offered and put it into her bag. “See you later.”
“You what?” Jane had called to ask about the evening. “You went speed-dating and made a date with a girl?”
“No! Well, yes, but not like that.”
“Did you meet any guys?”
“Yes, of course I did. I met 12 guys. You knew that.”
“But did you get any dates?” Jane was becoming exasperated. “You know, when a woman goes out alone with a man – don’t tell me you’ve forgotten what a date is?”
“Oh, ha ha, very funny.”
“Well, you are the only woman I know who could go to a speed-dating night and come home with another woman’s phone number. I give up.”
Jane had hung up before Louise could respond with a fairly meek “Me, too…”
Their home was a duplex, and the adjoining home had been let to first one family, then another, then to a group of young professional people freshly out of university and starting new jobs in the city; all wanting to live near the train. The owner rarely even sent in proxy votes to body corporate meetings.
This townhouse shared roof guttering with Louise’s unit, and living as they did in a very leafy street, the gutters required cleaning out annually.
“It’s no use just doing mine,” she thought. “Unless we do the whole gutter, there is no point.” So, she got the owner’s email address and sent them a note.
A few days later, she received a response. “Sure, thanks for sorting it out. Here is the letting agent’s number – they will cut you a cheque for half the cost of the gutter cleaning. In Melbourne next week and if you are at home, will say hello then.”
“Hmm,” thought Louise. “Neighbourly.”
So, when there was a knock on her door a week later, the thought that it might be the owners of next-door was a possibility Louise entertained. The other non-resident-owners were elderly, and the townhouse comprised the bricks-and-mortar element of their superannuation investment strategies. Of the 12 townhouses, 5 were let.
She opened the door and saw a good looking man her own age standing there, with a pleasantly benign look on his face. He was average height, and had thick, short, unruly grey hair that still had traces of the brown it had and a fair complexion. “Hello,” he said. “I’m Aidan, owner of Number 11.” He smiled at Louise and he seemed to brighten up considerably at the sight of her.
“Oh,” said Louise. Aidan was smiling openly at her now.
“I’m after L. Keats, the owner?” He peered around Lou, and into the house, as if waiting to see someone else.
“Yes,” Louise smiled back. She had never been so surprised. Aidan, her next-door-neighbour, was an attractive man of her own age who was clearly pleased to meet her. “I’m L. Keats. Louise. Hello.” She smiled back at him.
“Sorry,” he rubbed his chin. Louise noticed he spoke with a lovely accent – Australian, but gentle. “I was expecting someone a lot older, actually.”
Actually – he had used the Great Melbournian Adverb. It was how Louise identified Victorians everywhere. They all said “actually” at least once, every few sentences. Was he a local boy, or had he merely learned the local dialect?
“Oh – sorry,” Louise finally responded, realising that this was expected and not knowing what else to say. She recognised something about this man, but couldn’t identify what it was. Had he been on TV?
“It’s just that most of the other owners are –“
“Yes, I know. I’m surprised to meet you, too.”
Aidan laughed. “Ah – I see! You were expecting me to be older too, right?”
“Not that we are young, of course.”
Louise laughed. “Relatively speaking.”
“Yes, relatively speaking.” He reflected as he looked her up and down.
Aidan looked over his shoulder. “I saw a nice coffee shop over the road.”
“Yes, well, there are two, actually,” Louise reflected his speech. “We are spoilt for choice.”
“Would you be able to join me, for a coffee?” He peered into the house behind Louise. “Since we are neighbours, and if there is anyone at home with you – “
“Um, no – I can come. I’ll just grab my keys.”
They strolled down the treed footpath and, arriving at Gourmet Girl, settled themselves at a table for two in front of the café.
“So,” Aidan said, leaning back and smiling, “why do you look so familiar?”
“Do I?” said Louise. “As a matter of fact, I was thinking the same about you.”
“And your voice. It’s unusual. I’m sure I’ve heard it before.”
It was as the waitress was taking their order that Louise suddenly remembered him. Her heart almost stopped beating. She blinked and looked at him again.
“Oh my god,” she said.
Aidan laughed. “What?” he asked.
“Canberra, 1988,” she answered.
“Ye –“ Aidan sat back in his chair and stared at Louise.
“Lulu,” he said. Then he put back his head and sighed. “Aaagh!” Then he stood, came over to Louise, pulled her up from her chair and hugged her. “How the hell are you?” he asked.
Louise closed her eyes and hugged him back.
22 years peeled away like onion skins; dropped away like flower petals; ran away like a waterfall; sifted like dry sand through open fingers; and Louise was catapulted by the elastic band that is life between her pre-marital, pre-motherhood self, directly to her post-marital, post-motherhood persona.
22 years ago this man had been the choice she made. He’d offered himself as a viable option. He’d courted her as a young, free, desirable man courts a young, free, woman he desires. Now she was not young; three times a mother; and 50.
“So, Aidan,” he was holding her hand as she spoke. “Tell me about your life these past 22 years. What have you been doing? And how long have you been in Melbourne?”
Aidan laughed. “I was about to ask you the same thing!”
“No,” Louise insisted. “You first.”
“Aidan shrugged. “OK. Let’s see.” He took a deep breath and looked away to gather his thoughts. “Well, you remember that Dad lived on a farm in New South Wales.”
“Near Hall,” said Louise. “By the way – remember Rachel Fox?”
“Sister of Kim?”
“Yes! She lives in Melbourne, too!”
“No way! What is this, a southern migration?”
“Is she married?”
“But go on – I want to hear about you before we start catching up on old friends.”
“Right,” said Aidan. “Well, after we, I mean you and I, stopped seeing each other; not long after that, anyway, Dad couldn’t manage anymore, so we sold the farm and Dad moved into a retirement village.” Aidan paused. “It was a lot easier for me then, too, because before that I was always torn between being an accountant and being a farmer’s son. I had to be pretty much on call for Dad, so when he threw it in I felt quite liberated.”
Louise nodded. She remembered the commitment required of Aidan very well. She also remembered his cantankerous old father. He’d never like Louise – for no other reason than that she kept Aidan in town when the old man needed him at the farm – every single weekend.
So Louise had accompanied Aidan; and Aidan had urged her to come; and she had gone along willingly at first. But for a city girl, after the first few weekends it became a monotonous routine. Aidan’s father refused to entertain, or even go into town for a meal. He had no friends and no interests beyond his small holding. He spent the week storing up things to discuss with Aidan and had no intention of sharing this precious time with anyone else – least of all Louise. In his mind, Louise had Aidan all to herself all week long. He didn’t seem able to grasp that fact that they both worked long hours in different organisations and only saw one another twice a week, since both were studying graduate courses at night.
And he could never, under any circumstances, believe that a young woman could contribute anything of value to any conversation he might have with his son.
But there had been other issues that had nothing to do with the farm or Aidan’s father. Louise’s career with the ATO had been a source of constant criticism for Aidan, who worked for a firm of accountants. She had graduated from the University of Canberra while he had studied at the ANU. And he had become a Chartered Accountant, while she was a CPA. Never mind that she still had to do the same degree; and the same six three-and-a-half hour exams to join her professional association, just as he had had to do; Aidan had still made it clear that he regarded his professional pedigree as superior to hers.
22 years ago it had all seemed so fundamentally important. Now it seemed so infantile.
But Louise was headstrong and instead of shrugging it all off when Aidan tried to one-up her, she had felt aggrieved and resentful. She recalled the final occasion when Aidan had ridiculed her university and her employer when he had in fact been losing an argument; as though to diminish her ability to have any useful insight into the matter they were debating. Louise had gathered up her bag and coat and told him to ‘get fucked’. She’d returned his flowers and not returned his calls. Then she’d met someone else.
Aidan continued. “It was all so stupid, really.” He looked up at Louise from under his eyelashes. His eyelashes were still black, or dark brown anyway. Only his hair had greyed in a soft, wavy way. “I was an arrogant fuck back then.”
Louise laughed. “You were kinda cute.” She paused. “Are you married?”
Aidan sat up straight. “I was married. To Corinne.” He laughed to himself. “She was even more arrogant than I was,” he said. “When I didn’t make partner after 10 years, she took off. With the other partner,” he said.
“So, Corinne was an accountant, too?” Louise couldn’t help laughing.
“Well, I was working 12 hours a day, 6 days a week at least. Who else would I meet except another accountant? It’s part of the whole serfdom strategy of the accounting industry. It’s like a religion – make it untenable to meet anyone else and guess what? Everyone sticks together. They have no choice!”
“Wait,” Louise had noted a detail that interested her. “What do you mean – she made off with the ‘other’ partner?”
Aidan laughed quietly. “Corinne made partner. I didn’t.”
“Ouch!” Louise commiserated with him.
“I didn’t really mind, you know. I was proud of her. I didn’t realise that I had embarrassed her, and that she felt downgraded by my non-partner status.”
“It’s a bit unbelievable,” Louise agreed.
“You should have heard my father on the subject,” said Aidan, shaking his head and smiling embarrassedly. “Why wasn’t I partner? Why didn’t I take my rightful place beside Corinne? I earned more than she did after she made her equity payments – but that didn’t mean anything.” He smiled at Louise. “But – we have two lovely kids; I’d never regret our marriage.”
“I feel very much the same, really,” Louise admitted.
“I’m sorry, Louise,” he said.
“What for?” Louise asked.
“Oh, you know,” he said. “For being a snob; for not being man enough to know what was what. I don’t blame you for telling me to fuck off.”
“I told you to get fucked.” They both laughed. “I think we were both confused by irrelevant issues,” said Louise. “You were a bit stupid about certain things.” She smiled at him. “But I was a bit stupid, too, to think that those things would remain important. Just because you were wrong didn’t mean I had to be wrong too.”
“We all have our pride.”
“Pride is a cold bedmate.”
“Tell me about it.” He held her hand. “So, are you married?”
“And are you still an accountant?”
What was she? She was a divorcee; a single mother; an accountant. All of those answers were correct, but none of them answered the question. What people really wanted to know when they asked you that, was “How do you support yourself?”.
She considered her options. Louise knew that she would never return to her profession. She had devoted 25 years to the accounting standards and related legislations governing accounting in Australia, and felt no pull to return. But she had studied long and hard to become, and worked hard at being, a CPA since she was 20 years old, and would remain one. But work as an accountant again? No.
Single parent elicited notions of government pensions and financial hardship, and that wouldn’t do either.
Teaching had been a volatile and exhausting experience and Louise was glad to be finished. She could probably even describe herself as an “investor” – or an “entrepreneur”. That’s what a man in her position would say. Most of her income did come from a rental property she’d bought before she’d been married, after all.
But none of those answers really told her story.
Louise sighed and smiled. “I’ll have to get back to you on that,” she said.
“I’ll hold you to it,” he said with a smile.
The day of the ball was drawing closer.
“Can you pick me up from the airport?” Jane asked over the phone.
“Yes; but can you co-ordinate with Cate and Joan?” Louise was checking the kitchen calendar as she spoke. “They are coming from Canberra too so you should try to get the same plane. Then I can pick all of you up from the airport at the same time.”
“Good idea,” said Jane. “Otherwise you’ll spend the whole day picking people up. I don’t think they should be allowed to call it Melbourne airport. It’s an hour from Melbourne.”
“They don’t call it Melbourne airport. It’s called Tullamarine Airport.”
“Why is that?” asked Jane.
“Because it is in Tullamarine.”
“Oh. Well, that’s alright then.” But Jane was onto a new topic. “Hey – are you defending Melbourne?”
“You are! You are defending Melbourne, the city of people who only wear black all year round-“
“-who only smile if something is hilariously funny “
“-who are too busy to make friends with anyone they met after Grade 3!”
“But I am a Melbournian now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Who said you were a Melbournian? You can’t just suddenly declare yourself a Melbournian! Do you even own any black clothes?”
“No, you don’t. It’s no use pretending.”
“But I am a Melbournian!” Louise was insistent. “It’s a matter of plain fact.”
“Who says?” demanded her sister.
“My rates notice,” said Louise triumphantly. And she put down the phone.
It was true. Somehow, the past five years had turned her into a Melbournian. How had it happened? She broached the subject at the dinner table that night.
Everyone was sitting down and had begun to eat. Louise thought it would be a good time to ask the kids their opinion.
“How would you guys feel about moving to Brisbane?” she asked.
Peter shrugged. “I’d give it a try,” he said.
Louise was shocked. Of the three kids, she had always thought Peter the most attached to his school and friends. “Really?” she said.
“Well, when we were in Noosa last summer my eczema disappeared within 24 hours.”
It was true. Louise had dragged them all to Noosa for 10 days against their collective will and watched them have a really good time. They had decided to make it an annual event.
“It would be worth it just to stop scratching,” he added.
Louise felt guilty. She knew Peter’s eczema was troubling him, but like most chronic conditions that are suffered in silence, the non-sufferers forget about it after a while. Louise regularly bought Peter the crème he required and the special shampoo, but mostly she didn’t really think about it unless she saw Peter without his shirt on.
“Right,” she said.
“I suppose it would be alright,” said Camille.
“Wouldn’t you miss your friends?” Louise asked her.
“I’d make new ones,” Camille answered.
“I won’t be coming,” James shook his head. “I’m staying here.”
Louise nodded. She wasn’t surprised.
“Actually, I’d probably rather stay in Melbourne,” Peter was already having second thoughts.
“And I don’t really want to start all over again. I’ve just begun to build up my contacts,” said Camille.
Louise nodded. “I never thought I’d say it, but I think Melbourne is the best place for us. Brisbane has one third the population of Melbourne; Canberra has 10% of the population, and that alone limits your prospects in those cities.”
“Canberra’s just boring,” added James.
“Canberra is not boring when you live there.” Louise was adamant.
“Well, we don’t want to find out,” Peter laughed and ‘high-fived’ James.
“And James – you could easily end up in Queensland. You are studying engineering – it’ll be Queensland or Western Australia for sure, at some stage.”
“We can talk about it then.” James sat up straight. “In the meantime, my life is here and I’m not moving. Melbourne has everything I need.”
“It does,” Peter nodded.
“Best university in Australia,” James counted the items off on his fingers. “More coastline per square mile than any other state on the mainland-“
“That’s only because it is the smallest state on the mainland AND on the corner!”
“Doesn’t matter. It just means that you can get to the coast from anywhere in the state within at least 4 hours.” James was confident of his knowledge.
“I suppose,” Louise reluctantly agreed.
“And unlike Sydney, which is all carved up by waterways and harbours, Melbourne is nice and flat and totally accessible.”
“We do have the bay and the Yarra!” Louise wasn’t letting him get away with too much.
“Yes, but we live around the bay, not on different sides of it,” said James.
“That’s true,” said Louise.
“And when you go into the city, the roads are wider; and there are trams to take you everywhere.”
“I must admit, that is a great advantage,” Louise agreed again. “It was awful in the city in Sydney because the whole place was so hilly and you really miss the trams. Same goes for Brisbane actually.”
“I just don’t want to be the new girl again,” said Camille apologetically. “I know you don’t really like it here, Mum-“
“Why do you say that?” Louise asked.
“You always say how great Canberra is, and Sydney and even Brisbane.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean I don’t say Melbourne is great too.” Louise wanted to set the record straight. “I love all the cities I’ve lived in.”
“Even Melbourne?” Peter looked at his mother quizzically and with a certain amount of disbelief.
“Especially Melbourne!” Louise surprised herself. “I’m envious of all of you, growing up here. Victoria has it all. Great beaches; great skiing; a great city; great schools-“
“The best university in the entire country,” Peter added.
“Yes – don’t let the A.N.U. people hear you say that!” Louise laughed.
Peter shrugged. “Too bad. Melbourne University is officially the top ranking university in Australia. Look it up.”
Louise laughed and held her hands up in the surrender-pose. “I believe you!” she said. “So,” she continued, “I gather we are staying?”
James, Camille and Peter all agreed in unison. “Yes,” they said.
“But what about Peter’s eczema?” Louise asked.
Peter answered her. “I’ve been itchy and scratchy for this long. I’ll handle it.”
Everyone had arrived as scheduled. Louise had made a morning run to the airport, and then deposited her guests at the local salon, which she had booked out for the afternoon so that everyone could be coiffed and manicured in time for the Big Night.
“Is it too soon to open the champagne?” Rachel asked, as she popped the first bottle.
“No, but just one glass each,” Louise warned. “Champagne is provided in the limousine.”
“The what?” Jane had been chatting to Joan on the couch, but interrupted Louise when she heard the word ‘limousine’. She looked around at the other women. “Are we going in a limo?”
“Well,” said Louise, “Since so many of you had to fly to Melbourne to go to this ball, I thought it only fair that I get a limo to take us, and-“
“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaggggggghhhhhhhhh!” Jane squealed and bounced up and down on the couch. “I love limos!!”
Jane was wearing a black lacy top over a pair of black harem pants. The top had a smattering of sparkling beads and looked very dressy. And the thick, platinum, diamond encrusted ring she wore on the forth finger of her left hand was shown to advantage, too.
Cate wore a cream slimline cocktail length dress and black Jimmy Choo shoes. Since she was a tall size 6 she looked like a model.
Joan wore the silver satin suit she had worn to her son, Craig’s, wedding.
Rachel wore a purple satin dress which she had had specially made for the ball.
Kim wore a black, full-length, strapless dress.
Julia wore a copper coloured toga-style dress and looked perfectly statuesque.
Katherine wore a silky white single-shoulder gown with beaded detail across the diagonal neckline.
And Louise wore the violet satin bugle-beaded dress she’s bought in St Kilda.
Jane’s husband David and Louise’s son James were meeting the women in the foyer of the Crown Casino. Only the girls were riding in the limo.
When the chauffeur knocked at the door, there was a rush to collect handbags and lipsticks. The women filed sedately to the long, white car and bent to get in. The interior was a low room, with benches along four sides, enough room for all of them. The chauffeur – a woman – closed the door and they were away.
“Here –“Jane handed around the champagne flutes which she was filling with sparkling wine. “Let’s toast to our great big gorgeous ball!”
At that moment the “laser light show” began, and music thumped through the cabin. Everyone laughed, squealed, and clinked glasses.
The drive from Blackburn to the Crown casino involved driving down the Eastern Freeway and Hoddle Street. It was 6.30pm and everyone was either on their way out to dinner or the football game, so the streets were busy and the long white limo said “party in progress” to everyone driving past. They got toots and waves from the other motorists which they found hilarious for some reason.
“I wonder if the ball will be as much fun as the stretch limo?” Cate asked with a laugh.
“Oh – we’re not here already, are we?” Jane had been inspecting the empty bottle to ensure that no wine eluded her. Now she peered out the dark windows to see if they had reached their destination.
They had. The limo pulled in to the entrance and the chauffeur got our and opened the door for her passengers. One by one, like butterflies escaping the chrysalis, each woman disembarked and rearranged her gown as she tottered to the door. Doormen directed them to the main ballroom on the first floor.
Louise nudged Rachel. “Rach,” she whispered, “You know I said we would be with the “B” list of celebrates tonight?”
“Y-yes,” Rachel couldn’t really remember that at all, but wanted to hear what Louise had to say.
“Well, make that then “C” AND “B” list!” And she pointed discretely to a woman with enormous breasts which were almost-but-not-quite covered by a shimmering, skin-tight dress.
Rachel gasped. “Is that-?”
Louise nodded. “Brynne Edelsten. The ball is in aid of the Lighthouse Foundation, and the Edelstens are patrons.”
They were at the entrance to the ballroom now and it was clear that every female fashion model in Melbourne under the age of 25 had been hired to jazz up the event. Beautiful young women towered over the guests, taller even than most of the men.
“Oh, dear!” Jan put her hand to her mouth to hide her embarrassed smile. “Aren’t you glad you aren’t 6 feet tall like these poor girls?”
“They are gorgeous!” Cate was astonished at her mother’s comment. “I’d love to be that tall!”
“No, I wouldn’t,” Jane shook her head. “Too far to fall.”
“What?” Louise didn’t understand.
“When I fall over after drinking too much champagne, at least I don’t have far to go; and I have all this built-in cushioning for protection. If one of them falls over, they would break their skull from the sheer height of the drop and probably their skinny bones, too!”
“I don’t think they drink, actually,” Rachel said thoughtfully. “Too many calories.”
“Exactly!” Jane said triumphantly. “They can’t eat or drink – and they can never get comfortable on an aeroplane, so holidays are out. They might be nice to look at but isn’t there more to life than giving other people visual pleasure?”
“Hey – look at these cocktails!” Louise was looking at the drinks arranged for the guests to choose from. They seemed to be every colour of the rainbow. As they sidled up to the bar, a short man in a cowboy hat walked past, determinedly not making eye-contact with anyone.
“It’s Molly Meldrum!” Jane was off after the man, leaving the others to watch her being ignored by Mr Meldrum.
But Louise had seen a familiar face, and was smiling at the drop dead gorgeous man dressed in a black dinner suit, walking quickly towards her.”
“Hello neighbour!” It was Aidan. He looked so happy and surprised to see her – and so handsome. He touched her arm and kissed her cheek in greeting. Louise could smell his aftershave.
“Hi!” Louise was happily surprised to meet him. She noticed how well he looked, all dressed up in his dinner suit. “Absolutely divine,” she thought lasciviously.
Aidan smiled at her. “Wait here – I’ll get us both a drink. Champagne, isn’t it?”
“Please,” Louise nodded.
He returned with two flutes of champagne, both with strawberries.
“Thank you – I was dying of thirst,” she said, taking one from him.
“Mmm,” Aidan said as he sipped. “Me too.” He looked around at the busy room, and nodded. “Very nice, even if I do say so myself.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” Aidan looked humble. “I’m on the Lighthouse Foundation ball committee – actually I was put in charge of the reception room this year.” He indicated the works of art and other paraphernalia collected for the silent fund-raising auction. “I organised this side off the event.”
“Really?” Louise’s eyebrows shot up. “That’s pretty impressive, Aidan,” she said
“Thanks. It’s actually a lot of fun. And –” Aidan looked behind himself and beckoned to someone. “You’re in luck! My son is here tonight.” A younger version of Aidan arrived at his side and smiled his hello to Louise.
“Meet Tim, “Aidan said proudly. Tim appeared to be about 20 years old. “Angela couldn’t come – she’s only 17,” he explained.
“Hello Tim,” said Louise. “And will we be seeing you in Laburnum St?”
Aidan answered her. “Well, we live in Brighton, but perhaps we could entice you over to the beach one day?”
“Certainly.” Louise smiled at Tim. “You will have to come over and meet my son, James. He is about your age.”
“Great,” said Tim. “Look, I’ll see you both later. I’m running an errand.”
“Off you go then,” Aidan tapped his son’s shoulder affectionately.
Aidan waited till Tim was gone, and Louise could see that he had something to say.
She laughed. “What is it?”
Aidan smiled at her, and shook his head. “It’s ridiculous,” he explained, “and you will think I’m out of line, but I wanted to run something past you, even though this isn’t the right forum, or anything…”
“What is it?”
“Well, we are neighbours.”
“Fellow owner’s corporation members,” Louise sipped her champagne.
“More than that, really; we have a common wall.” Aidan glanced from his glass to Louise and back to his drink. Was he nervous?
“We do,” Louise agreed. She was trying to suppress her grin but failing. She could feel her dimple deepening.
“And I think we have both finished renovating the interior of our respective houses.”
“There’s nothing left to be done on the inside at my place,” Louise nodded, waiting for him to continue.
“So, I was wondering,” Aidan, cleared his throat, and looked hard at his drink, “if you might be interested in getting together, to re-landscape the front gardens of our houses. They need to be completely re-done, starting afresh. First we would simply remove what was there before, and together we could design a completely new garden, with plants we’ve chosen together, especially for the new layout.”
He looked at Louise, who was speechless, so he cleared his throat again and continued. “We could have them done as one garden instead of leaving them split in two, as they are now.”
“We could.” Louise wasn’t smiling any more. She blinked as she looked up at him. “It would look like one, big house, on the outside.”
“Yes. It would. One big house. And, you know, the feng shui people say that the exterior of a home is very important.”
“I’ve heard that,” said Louise.
“That first impression gives everyone – even the people who live there – a good feeling about their home.”
“Yes, of course.”
“And I was thinking of roses, and lavender,” said Aidan.
“I love roses and lavender,” said Louise.
“Perhaps some lilac too, so that whenever we opened our front doors, the perfume would waft into the house.”
Louise put her head on one side and asked “So, our two houses would be joined by a common garden, making them look like one?”
“It would, yes, absolutely, one house. Just for starters,” Aidan smiled uncertainly at her. “I know that they are quite separate houses, quite individual.” He paused and looked at Louise, trying to judge her response. “But sometimes, often, and I think in this situation, the resultant single garden might be bigger than the sum of its two parts.” Aidan sipped his wine. “If you see what I mean,” he added.
“I do,” answered Louise.