‘Write it down,’ Kelly used to say. ‘All of it.’ Or, at least, I think she did. After the operation, her face was so strung up with wires; she could have been saying, ‘fight it out’, or even ‘right to drown’. I thought I should pretend to understand what she was saying, so I’d nod and even give a little laugh, just so she’d know I was listening. She could have been saying, ‘I want a toasted cheese sandwich’, or ‘I regret everything’. Only now I’m being fanciful.
‘Fanciful’ is Margaret’s favourite word for me. ‘Don’t get things into your head; if I know you, you’ll never get them out again.’ Funny thing is, everyone says I look so much like her – Margaret wouldn’t be pleased to hear that. They wonder if we are twins. Of course, it was Margaret who got me into this. Kelly was so patient, and Margaret so brutish; so peculiarly literal-minded. I often wonder how they ever fell in love. She must have had some hidden pockets of sentimentality, my sister, because Margaret sold the car after Kelly’s accident, even though there was no sign of it bar a darkish stain on the steering wheel. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, as Mr Humpton from Year Six used to say when he was teaching us the order of operations for sums. We’re ‘starting at the wrong end’.
Margaret’s known the Allens for aeons. She thinks the husband’s got a thing for her (well, she would) but it’s the wife she’s always liked. They met when their girls were in kindergarten together. One of those Montessori places where it’s all songs about brother sun and sister moon and incessant chanting in a circle. Kat – that’s the wife – calls herself a painter, which seems to extend to wearing hundred-dollar silk pyjama pants during the day and cutting out photos that help her to her ‘creative space’. It doesn’t really matter, since her husband’s high up in one of the major banks. Not that I mind. It was Margaret, not me, who used to covet that crowd, with all their free-spirited wistfulness and their Saabs.
They wanted someone to feed the cat, walk the dog and set the security system each night. He was taking her for a surprise vacation – she wasn’t allowed to know where. ‘Not very practical,’ I told Margaret. ‘How would you know whether to pack a ski suit or swimmers?’ ‘They’re assuming you’ll babysit,’ I said when she announced later that she was house-sitting. She shook her head. She gets this funny frown when she’s impatient. ‘The kids will go to Kat’s mum’s. To the farm.’
I suppose I was expecting her to ask me along. She knows weekends are hard for me and anyway, she was taking the bratlet with her, who is prone to collapse in a fit of crocodile tears as soon as she sees someone with something she wants but hasn’t got – which, in the case of the Allens, would be quite a list.
But when I came around in the car bearing DVDs and a new true-crime thriller, Margaret was put out. If I feel annoyed or disappointed, I try to just pretend I haven’t even noticed something’s wrong. It’s a leftover from school, I guess, when the other girls used to call me Piss because it rhymed with Fliss, or when they tied me to the chair, or made me eat soap because I stunk. After a while, I’d forget I was caught in an unpleasant mess; I’d discover I was really quite calm. It got to be a problem, of course, because then they’d do more and more to hurt me, to try and make me respond. ‘They’re just trying to get a reaction,’ Mum would say. ‘Don’t give them the satisfaction.’
They got one in the end.
But Margaret’s an old hand at the ‘I wish you hadn’t…’ face. She purses her lips, sighs and then clasps her hands together. I shouldn’t even think this, but I wonder how Kelly put up with it. ‘Not the smartest tool in the shed,’ Mum said once. I was shocked at Mum for being so catty, but privately I agreed, though I told her Kelly was very successful and not everyone can get high distinctions at university.
‘I told you, Felicity,’ said Margaret. ‘I have to be there for six. They’re making dinner for me before they go.’ Melissa was capering around her feet making horse neighs and splutters and sticking out her tongue at me.
‘I know. I thought I could tag along and help you with bratlet.’
‘Don’t call her that, Flea, she’s four now: she understands.’
Margaret was the one who came up with the name: a brat in miniature, a brat in training. She loved the term when Melissa was in the terrible twos, but now I’m meant to forget she ever used it; it would stain her image of perfect motherhood. I am thirty-three and I can be Flea, but Melissa is four and might get her feelings hurt.
‘You practically invited me.’
Margaret telephoned the Allens and told them her sister was helping her out tonight, could they feed two, oh thank you.
I have to shift my bags to the other car because Margaret is a sook about night driving. She feels safe in the Toyota because it’s a huge lump of a thing and has air bags. Or she wants to show it off to Kat. Just before Mum died, she gave Margaret the car because she had to drive an hour to visit Kelly in the hospital. It has GPS and cushiony seats. I would never say this to my sister, but I have been driving in the old hatchback to work for years and years and it’s practically forty-five minutes each way, so Mum could have thought of me first.
The husband answered the door. He looks like a travel program presenter on television – all that craggy cheerfulness and the muscles in his arms. His teeth are too yellow, though, and the tan must be fake, given all the grey days we’ve been having.
‘Hi, I’m Hugh,’ he tells me, shaking my hand before pulling me into one of those almost-hugs where he’s left patting my shoulder strangely. ‘Mags.’ She gets two kisses, one on each cheek. He picks Melissa up for a whizzy-dizzy but Margaret cuts it off at the pass with ‘Just had dinner’ and a big smile.
Kat rushes down the hall, which is polished wood and severe white walls, with arty black and white images of the couple. A certain reverence hovers around the photographs. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you. You’re a darl.’ Kat seems very plain to me. She’s wearing white linen trousers and a Yale University zip-up jacket (though we can bet she didn’t go there). She doesn’t have any makeup on, but her earrings glimmer with stones. ‘You must be the sister I’ve heard so much about.’ She hugs me, too, and I feel odd because even Margaret’s stopped trying to touch me, to put out a hand or an arm over my shoulder.
When we’re at the dinner table she serves us tiny bowls of cold soup and their pepper grinder is the size of an arm. Phallic insecurities, I chuckle to myself. Hugh grins too, foolishly, as if we’ve shared a private joke.
‘Did you like it?’ I wave my arm toward Kat’s shirt and almost knock over the grinder.
‘Yale, I mean.’
Kat grins ferociously. ‘Actually, I haven’t been. My oldest friend sent it to me. She’s in the States. It’s a comfort shirt.’
Clearly, she wants me to therapise with her about the things we cling to. I swallow another spoon of soup. Their house is a mess. I almost feel at home.
Hugh pours himself more wine. The glass isn’t quite clean. ‘K got into Stanford, though I’m not meant to say.’
She makes a wry face at me. ‘Ages ago. And then–’
‘And then we had the boys,’ he finishes and they clink their glasses together.
After this minor celebration of maternal love triumphing women’s personal ambition, Kat puts on some jazz. I am still hungry when Hugh clears the plates away. ‘Seconds for anyone? Felicity?’
‘We’ve had enough,’ Margaret announces. I can be polite, too, but why does her politeness result in my deprivation? I could live in this house. I could drop the kids at kindy, and buy new books at the store around the corner, and curl myself into the couch and worry about my fine lines and the arrival of swine flu and all those kids starving in Africa. I could. It’s just that I choose not to.
I go to the bathroom while the Allens are collecting their cases. Their door is ajar, so I hover in the hall.
‘Nothing like Mags… She’s big, isn’t she?’ Hugh bares his teeth at himself in the mirror.
‘Don’t be awful,’ Kat answers, in a voice that means she’s glad someone else said it. When they see me waiting, Hugh makes a big show of giving me a house tour. I tell him I am on some medication and that it slows down my metabolism. He touches my arm apologetically, and I feel it eddying through my body, ricocheting through me like one of those idiotic pinball machines.
So you see it was Margaret’s fault, in a fashion, for bringing me there. And now the Allens won’t see her. She had already gone a bit funny after Kelly died. I wasn’t supportive, she said. She said she was growing to hate me. I tried to tell myself it was a sisterly spat. Grief distorts people. I’d lost Kelly too, and Kelly was always fond of me. She used to bring me desserts and library books, and we’d settle in for a chatty night in front of the television. I visited her often in the hospital.
‘You’re not the main character,’ Margaret yelled once. ‘Stop getting fat on other people’s problems.’ If she’d been in her right mind, she wouldn’t have said fat. No one says this word around me, it’s as forbidden as cunt, or suicide. I try not to look at my body when I take a shower. Not that it would bother me to see myself, it’s just an old habit, one I could shake off if I needed to.
Well, Hugh must have had an attack of conscience because he pulled me aside when Kat was in the car and asked for a favour. For a moment – though really one so fleeting it hardly registered – I thought he was going to ask to kiss me, but as I leaned forward he took a small step back. He probably thought about it too, but instead he thrust a package at me. It was another surprise for Kat; I was to put it in their bedroom so it was the first thing she’d see when they returned. ‘Could you do that for me?’ I had to suppress the urge to say, yes, I have arms and legs and a fully functioning nervous system, placing a present in a room is not yet beyond me. But I just nodded and gave him a little grin of conspiracy – he and I were going to arrange the loveliest surprise for the Stanford-avoider, no matter what.
Margaret didn’t really want to talk much that evening. She put Melissa down and then she switched on the television. During the CSI ad break, I said, ‘They seem nice.’
‘Yeah, they are.’
‘He’s got a touch of the sleaze.’
‘I don’t think so, Felicity.’
‘But you said yourself he fancied you.’
‘That was ages ago and he was very drunk.’
‘You could do better than that,’ I told her. I was trying to be reassuring but she snapped off the television and went into the other room.
It’s this idea she has: that I don’t support her being a Lesbian. I wouldn’t capital-L it ordinarily, but since I’m writing it all down, under Kelly’s jumbled instructions, I want to capture her inflection. She says it as if it’s a role she’s taken on – like being a firefighter or a Seventh Day Adventist or PTA council president. But she forgets all the cheques, all the direct deposits into her account. Who paid for Kelly’s home nurse and then the funeral? But I do understand. Women have soft bodies; their cruelty is a kind I recognise. Better the devil you know. After Craig, I could never imagine touching another man. Or, rather, I could imagine it but I couldn’t imagine it happening to me. But I’m quite beyond thinking about all that, I can tell you. These days I just try to whistle a little tune and switch the kettle on for an instant coffee. It’s not worth my while to go back to all those memories. Goodness knows, it was a long time ago.
The package was wrapped in violet paper with gold ribbon. He must have got the store to do it. I couldn’t imagine those fat little fingers folding and smoothing. The parcel was quite light. I shook it but I couldn’t guess what was inside. He hadn’t quite sealed the envelope. He’d tucked in the lip, but when I tugged it out, the envelope tore a little. Never mind, I thought, you can hardly see the rip. Since I was halfway there already, I opened the card:
Catkins. (Well, you can imagine my reaction here. Nicknames ought to be appealing, and this sounded far too much like cat litter, or catnip.) By the time you open this we’ll be back from a glorious weekend together. I don’t care if it’s corny (!) I love you more now than I ever have. In fact, I adore you every second, every minute, every day. Let’s forget about all this mess and promise that our next ten years together will be as good as the last.
Some people have no imagination. At least we know his secretary didn’t write the note. But the ‘mess’ sounded promising. I was wondering about financial gloom, or some painting of hers mocked unkindly. There was a postscript: I can’t wait to try our new toy.
Margaret says it was unforgivable to pry like that. I don’t really know what I was thinking. I have never found anything good looking through other people’s things. But then Margaret’s never had constant longing, either. Or maybe longing isn’t the best word. Keening, perhaps. There I go again – fanciful.
I couldn’t sleep. Their cupboards were filled with soy milk, and low-calorie crackers, and teeny-tiny rice biscuit snack packs for the kids. The fridge had brie and carrot sticks and old leftovers with a suspicious smell. They were giving a pack of Guylian chocolates to Kat’s mum to say thank you. Look, you can get those at any supermarket.
I ate every one, in the bed they’d laid out for me. Cotton sheets and a pink-and-green striped doona. I licked the chocolate smears off my fingers. It was the house, I think. I didn’t know I was crying until the tears fell into my mouth. I looked at my thick, plump wrists, like a piece of dead animal in the supermarket, and I was disgusted. All this wishing and hoping and here I was again, eating myself sick in the dead of night in someone else’s home. I thought of Hugh putting his hand on my arm and I touched myself. I’ve learned to do it without seeing my own body – quite a trick, right up there with changing in the girls’ toilets before gym and snaffling off your bra without removing your shirt. My fingers were sticky from the chocolate. I tried to think about my old life – the job, my desk, the people who I said hello to each morning. I wouldn’t say it worked but I got through the night.
When I look back now, Kelly, I think: Why didn’t they leave a box of chocolates for us?
I gave Margaret fifty dollars when I was seeing her off the next day. Melissa was late for pottery class and was whining about how she didn’t have her sheep. She had called the sheep Dolly, before all the clon¬ing, which is one of those odd coincidences which makes me feel the world’s a sinister sort of place. Mind you, all her soft toys were Dolly, so we can’t make too much of it.
‘I’ve walked the dog,’ Margaret said. ‘Can you feed, umm…’
‘Kitty,’ I told her. How a woman with such a chronic lack of imagination could imagine herself an artist is quite beyond me. Or maybe it was that accidental narcissism these people acquire – it doesn’t take too much thinking to put kitty and kat together.
‘She’s called, umm, Scout, but they call to her with Kitty.’
‘And Fliss? Don’t hang about here. They just want us to put on a few lights now and then so it’s not obvious they’re not home.’
I waved her away. ‘You’ll be late.’
‘Can you try and find the damn sheep?’ Margaret was balancing Melissa’s backpack and lunchbox and her imitation leather handbag. Near enough to the real thing, I want to tell her, is not good enough. It’s best not to seem to be trying.
I had a bath in their spa bath. When I poured the lavender Crabtree & Evelyn bath-soak in, I gave it a few good glugs. After I got out, I tried out Kat’s Estée Lauder skin cream, smoothing it under my eyes and imagining that I was one of those women who knew how to arrange flowers, who always bought Japanese print cards for birthdays, who worried about interest rates; a woman who had a slight sag to their breasts and laughed one of those full, tinkling laughs that tells the world you don’t have a thing to worry about.
I got bored by ten. Craig always said, ‘You’ll never change’, but of course I did. You can’t help it – can’t avoid it – even if you’d like to. ‘You’re as rigid as your dried up old cunt,’ he said. Surely if he’d thought about it, he would have known that it was his fault as much as anyone’s that my cunt was dry – if it was, I can’t really remember. He wasn’t exactly complimenting his own prowess in that department.
Of course, by the afternoon, I was almost desperate. Their DVDs were as sanitised and wholesome as the thirty-six-different-grain-mix rolls they probably bought for eight dollars a pop at the local organic bakery. Finding Nemo. Revolutionary Road. Hips, Thighs and Buttocks was promising but it only explained why Kat is in such good condition (like a car, really). I looked in her ‘studio’ and – I can tell you this now, Kelly – her art really was quite good. It didn’t bode well, at first. She had all these images on her pinboard – pomegranate fruit sliced in two, the wash of a seashell. They all looked like vaginas to me (perhaps she secretly wanted to join your side of life, Kelly) but her own stuff was strangely affecting.
It was as if all that manufactured whimsy – naming her cat after a character in a book she loved in childhood, carrying on about how money was just paper – somehow became stark in her own work. There were all these ghostly apparitions but then she’d include a little detail – an expensive alarm clock, a woman’s foot, a car tyre – from ‘real life’, as if to say: ‘It’s the day-to-day that’s haunting us forever, after all.’ I’ll admit I was disappointed, but that wasn’t why I did it, in the end.
Their paperwork was dreary. I opened up his nice oak desk; it was all carefully filed bills and things he was claiming on tax that he probably oughtn’t. They bought the house cheaply – lucky buggers, they’d found it when the neighbourhood was filled with Pakistani takeaways and fish-and-chip shops. Everyone has secrets, don’t they, Kel? Yours is that your kindness was a sort of veneer, a careful plastic coating, for what lay underneath. But I loved you, Kelly, because you never sneered at me. And Margaret? Perhaps you loved her, too.
When I read the instructions I realised I’d left Scout to her own devices. I measured out the cat food. The instructions were hilarious. Hugh could have done stand-up:
Scout likes to play outside but please bring her in for curfew – once night falls. Only one third of a can of catfood and some dry to snack on if she wants it – she’s prone to getting fat. Scout likes to sleep in the bed in the living room. Her kitty litter is in the bathroom. She won’t use it if it’s not clean (fussy, I’m afraid), so please empty it twice daily. Scout will try to shed the collar with the bell but please keep an eye on this. We hate to see beautiful birds dead on the back porch, which is where she’ll bring them.
I wondered if he would ask me to read a story to Scout and tuck her into bed. Usually, it’s the childless that carry on like this. We’ve all got our substitutions, don’t we, Kelly? We’ve all got our anxieties pinned somewhere else than where they actually matter.
I duplicated a key at the hardware store down the road.
Hugh rang in the evening, just after I’d spoken to Margaret and told her she didn’t have to come by.
‘Mags? How are you?’
‘It’s Felicity.’ People always mix us up; we look so alike.
‘Ah. How’s tricks?’
‘Tricks are fine.’
‘No. How is the trip?’
‘Oh, well, it’s gorgeous. We’re spoilt rotten here. Kat’s run off for a facial.’ So he’d secreted this time alone to ring Margaret? Or was he hoping I’d answer?
‘Listen. Stella, Kat’s mum, has to go for a check-up tomorrow. I was hoping Mags could mind Frankie? Ophelia’s at school, so she’ll be right. Tremendous imposition, I know.’
‘I’ll ask her,’ I told him. ‘I’m sure that will be okay. What time?’
‘Stella said she’d take him to the house around four.’ So he’d already organised it.
‘My sister’s working then, but I could. . . ’
‘Tell you what: we’ll book our nanny and if you can let her in you’ll be free to do your own thing.’
Obviously I’m not even fit to parent for a few measly hours. ‘There’s no need, Hugh,’ I said heavily. ‘We’ll be fine.’
‘Oh, I’ve left a gift for Stella in the kitchen. If you could hand it over. . .?’
He got off the phone pretty quickly.
Even I felt bad about the chocolates when the bouquet arrived. Hyacinths – how did he know that I liked them? And the note was something else, as the inarticulate like to say. Any more adjectives of gratitude and goodness and I’d be retching. But I got there, in the end, twenty minutes before Frankie was about to arrive. Did they name him Franklin? I’d put twenty bucks on it. Kids are adaptable and cunning. He was probably casting around for a nickname from six months of age. ‘Don’t gnaw on the rattle, Franklin, it’s bad for your teeth’; ‘Look what Mommy made you, Franklin. Isn’t it pretty?’
I did not tell you about Craig, did I, Kelly? If we’re to be pitied, at least we can also be silent.
They made me check myself into a psychiatric hospital after Craig and all the lies, and I took my pills and watched soap operas on television and used the stories in the programs (adoption, sexual abuse, marriages and divorces) as the plots for my new exaggerations. My doctor, a grim-faced man with a lost expression, did not doubt a word.
It was in Kat’s journal. Took me ages to find it. She’s smarter than she looks, that Kat; it was tucked in the back of old photos of the kids, in a cardboard box in the shed. She’d been seeing another man. She was slumming it with an unemployed writer, a man she’d met at a workshop on creativity; about how when one door closes another opens. The writer was their prime example, because he’d been a bong-smoking twenty-year-old prone to schizophrenic episodes. Then he drafted a black comedy that had been reviewed in the mainstream papers and sold plenty. From what I can tell – from the diaries, Kelly – he’d probably thought he was writing the next great, grim analysis of modern life. He was probably smarting – men like this never have a sense of humour – that people found it funny.
Then Frankie was at the door. Stella wasn’t old money. Far from it. She exuded country lass. She was wearing jeans and boots and not even Estée Lauder could have fixed her skin. Of course, by then I’d lost Scout, so my mind was on other things.
Margaret came back to find Frankie playing video games and the door wide open. She was furious. It wasn’t long before we found the cat (not a up a tree, as Margaret insisted, but hiding in their ornamental fireplace) when she told me that I wasn’t welcome and I’d have to ‘make myself scarce’. ‘You always ruin things,’ she said. ‘Even when you don’t mean to. Even when you don’t want to.’ So I hadn’t taken the dog for the evening walk. So Franklin hadn’t had dinner.
I went home with the Sunday papers until I was high with boredom. I read the classifieds and rang about a 1997 Toyota Celica, just to hear a human voice. But the man sounded like Craig and I didn’t know what to ask about a car except for ‘how many kilometres?’, so he soon hung up, but by then I’d promised to come around Monday morning to look at it.
The way I found Craig out was that his voice changed. (Well, that and I looked through his papers. No tax file number, no passport, ID in the name of Henry Johnson.)
He’d be smooth, easy, solid eastern suburbs with me and then build in an American twang when he thought it would fit in better with the wealthy ladies who were all secretly hoping for something more exotic than their mid-range, middle-class, middle-of-the-road husbands. You’ve got to give him that, Kelly – the exotic, I mean. He was certainly unusual.
He didn’t even have a new angle; it was all pyramid building schemes and a great investment he couldn’t pass up. I didn’t ring the police because I thought he might have loved me. ‘Do you think I’d voluntarily fuck you?’ he asked. ‘You’re a con artist too, you fucking woman, you told me you were coming into money.’
And I melted, even as I recoiled, because he called me a woman, Kelly, and not a monster, although he did say woman as if it were the worst thing in the world.
But he didn’t get twenty cents out of me when I threw him out. He said I had ‘mental health issues’ and that they could fill an ocean with my ‘fat neuroses’.
He said, ‘Have you ever looked at yourself? You’re pig ugly.’
I don’t look at myself, if I can avoid it.
I knew Margaret was going to her ‘loss-of-a-partner’ grieving group so I used my key to let myself in.
They have snow-white sheets on the bed, with a red border, and fake flowers on the dresser. All those pictures of the two of them, and the kids, as if they aren’t sure they’re quite real.
She had a vibrator in the first drawer under the dressing table, and he had a bunch of battered pornographic magazines, confirming my impression he was in a perpetual state of adolescence.
She had three miscarriages before the kids and had named them all, and he wrote in his diary, in nasty little upright letters, about how acupuncture and herbs had fixed her.
Well, of course I felt sorry that I’d done it, then. But I found out he hadn’t gone to the hospital with her, not at all, and had left her to bleed out alone, so it was justified.
I took the vibrator, and the magazines, and the diary down to where I had her diary sitting out in the lounge room.
And this is the bit I wouldn’t really like to write down, Kelly, because they came back early. She crumpled, and threw her arms about in sweet despair, and he came so close to me I leaned in for that kiss. But he spat in my face.
People like that can’t be around me. I don’t know why. Maybe I remind them of all the unpleasantness they’ve avoided.
She cried until he opened the diary and then she was bitter and serious. For a moment – these chances are so rare, Kelly – I felt a huge sense of well-being and power and joy. Because he looked at me after he read about the failed successful novelist – he looked just as if I could save him. And Kat, she tightened her jaw and promised fresh starts and holidays in the Greek islands and self-examination and trying again. He read the passages about the sex with the writer out loud.
‘Thank you, Felicity,’ he told me. ‘You vicious bitch.’ I didn’t know if it was me or his wife he was addressing. She was crying softly, pulling at his arm and pleading until he walked out of the room.
She shrieked at me: ‘You’re a witch. You’re inhuman.’
I answered, ‘Come here,’ and I opened my arms. She stepped forward and hit me hard in the face, as if it was I and not she who was hysterical!
‘You’ll never have a life. You’re so disturbed.’
But she was the one whose face was contorted in childish fury.
They divorced six months later; he found a blonde at the local café and took his children on weekends.
For a time after Craig, when I was still working, before the shrink and the drugs and the false epiphanies, I dreamed every night I was someone else. I was not alone. I was not repulsive, or dangerous, or obese, or haunted, or forgotten. And in the waking hours I found I could not speak my own name. I hid in the safe soothing sounds of television, waiting to become something else, until even Margaret began to worry and to try to tempt me with supermarket cakes, banal reports of the outside world and promises of ‘going for a drive’. I was so alone I began to watch myself in the mirror obsessively and to check for my own shadow. After the institution I decided to pretend everything was just fine and now it really is.
They shouldn’t do these things if they don’t want to be found out. I am what, in an earlier time, might have been known as a good Samaritan.