Through the window
The summer sky is a wide blue dome encircling us as we stroll along the Esplanade, arm in arm, bathed in warmth and dazzling light. The air is so clear the container ships can be seen for miles as they churn their way steadily, relentlessly towards the heads – gradually shrinking until they steer right and vanish, steaming inexorably out and away, over the horizon.
The impulse of sadness when I see the ships departing, growing smaller, is an old acquaintance I push gently away, barely noticing.
I cast my gaze around at the palm trees with their fronds dancing in the light breeze, the bright sails on the bay, the burnished gold sand. Tom’s arm curves round my waist, his fingers lightly, almost indolently stroking my hip, and I snuggle closer in, smiling up at him.
‘Here it is!’ I point along the row of houses lining the opposite side of the Esplanade. The string of colourful residences reflects the changing fortunes of the beachside suburb over the decades: Art Deco edifaces adorned with cornices and painted an expensive fresh white tower over modest red brick terraces; concrete blocks of low-rise apartments have sprouted in every gap.
‘Lisieux,’ I murmur dreamily, letting my head fall on to Tom’s shoulder. ‘My namesake!’
Tom kisses me lightly on the cheek, stroking back my dark strands, and pulls me towards him. He knows what I’m thinking every time I see this house.
My mother named me Lisette after this house.
When I was small she told me she used to cycle past here on her way to the beach and would look at this house, wondering who lived here, wishing it was her. When she was a uni student, then all through the years as she got older – when she was married and my brother Emil was young, then when things turned sour and she used to go off for rides on her own, looking for respite. And then when she met my dad, and would cycle down here to meet him.
She told me about one sparkling winter afternoon she took off on her bike, riding back home from St Kilda to Fitzroy, the slanting sun in her eyes. She cycled effervescently, exhilarated, as he drove past her in his white car, glancing long at her, his eyes dark and loving, watching through his rearview mirror.
When she told me that story I could almost see his velvety eyes and feel her joy as she cycled into the sun, the skyline, the future that burned fierce and luminous in her.
It’s not the most beautiful house ever: in fact, I think it looks a bit sterile, with its boxy exterior jutting out from its more traditional façade. Mum says it used to be a kind of ivory colour and looked better, somehow warmer then. Now it’s a kind of trendy steel grey.
I like the big square window at the front – through it you can often see a huge vase of lilies inside, sitting in the middle of a vast mahogany table. The carpet is white and the walls are hung with gilt paintings.
You never see anyone in Lisieux, despite the soaring windows. Sometimes, when I walk past – or cycle past, like my mum used to – I feel it’s a stage set. Waiting for the cast to walk onstage. Holding its breath, waiting for the story to begin.
I can hear her jagged breathing through the wall as I’m hugging my ribs in my cramped box of a room, shivering slightly under the duvet. She’s crying again. I shut my eyes and sing a little song to myself.
Je vais m’en aller à Saint-Tropez
Je vais m’en aller à Saint-Tropez
Je vais quitter Paris
Et le ciel gris…
She’s still crying. I know she can’t hear me so I sing it again, and again, and again until I’m nearly asleep. As I wait for sleep to come, I watch the cracked blind swaying in the draft. The lights of the passing cars shining through sweep across to my wall, like fireflies. I hear the shouts of a passing drunk, and the ebb and flow of my mum’s quiet sobbing. My hands are clamped on my ribs for warmth.
At breakfast she sits and watches while I eat my muesli and fruit. It’s as if she wants to be sociable, but can’t think of anything to say. I watch the TV numbly, glassy-eyed. It’s ABC News Breakfast. I don’t know why she turns it on, she always sits with her back to it, and she can’t stand the newsreader. ‘Self-satisfied smug bourgeois who thinks she’s edgy because she lives in Carlton not South Yarra,’ I heard her comment once to Emil. Emil just grunted back – he used to join in with Mum’s critiques, but these days, he’s immersed in his own teenage life. I think she’s jealous of this woman with her good job on TV, jealous of her (presumably) nice renovated terrace house, probably a husband, and two kids who are both her husband’s kids too. Two kids, one dad, one mum. Perfect.
‘What’s on in school today?’ Mum asks me, stirring her coffee. “Is it grade six assembly this morning?’ She picks up a fork and plays with her fruit – no muesli, just fruit. She likes to stay thin, and I know it’s just in case my dad comes back one day.
I shake my head. ‘No… that was… Wednesday,’ I say vaguely. I’m tired, I never sleep that well the nights I hear her crying. I look at her dubiously. Her eyes are ringed in shadows and her hand is shaking slightly. She probably drank too much wine last night. I swivel my head to the recycling bin: yep, there’s a wine bottle upended in it.
‘Emil!’ Mum calls, suddenly remembering she’s a mother and he’s going to be late for school. But she doesn’t get up out of her chair. I guess she’s too tired; she looks so fragile and finished sitting there clutching her coffee in her black skivvy that’s seen better days and her short desperately bright geometric skirt. I’m sure if we lived in other parts of town - in the suburbs - people would think she was a bit unhinged. Actually, when I think about it, she probably is a bit unhinged.
I shuffle off to get my school bag. I collect my lunchbox off the kitchen bench and notice there’s no sandwich today, just an extra rice cracker. Mum sees me notice. ‘We ran out of bread and I didn’t realise till this morning,’ she smiles apologetically. ‘Sorry, sweetie.’
She reaches out and pulls me in for a hug as I walk past her chair. I stand still, obedient, while she hugs me, placing her hands on my shoulders and pushing me gently back for a moment, to look close at me. She brushes a lock of hair off my forehead and I see her looking longingly at it, as she curls it round her finger. My dad’s hair was black like mine.
I pull away, frowning, and twist my head so she has to let go. As I run down the stairs past the shut grimy doors of the other flats I think Un jour, je vais te trouver, salaud.
I traipse to school. Partly I’m tired because I’m already thinking ahead to French school, after normal school. Today we need to stand up the front and give a little talk about where we’re going for our next holiday. As I hurry across St Kilda Road at the lights, my eye on the green man, willing him not to switch to red till I’m past halfway, I remind myself I have to skip choir this lunchtime. I have to go the library and look up places on the Riviera in the atlas.
St Tropez…Antibes…Nice…which will I choose.
I get a tight feeling in my chest at the thought of skipping into French class with my chattering braided classmates, in their unladdered woollen tights, gleaming patent black shoes, and afterwards - even worse - skipping out again. To where all the parents are waiting, leaning on their expensive cars, coolly watchful behind sunglasses, their snatches of nonchalant conversation - Nous étions en Nouvelle-Calédonie, ces vacances - wafting with a smooth indifferent self-contentment through the playground.
All these Calvin Klein clad dads with their neat hair and lingering glances at the mini-skirted, gold-ringed mums of their kids’ classmates, their privileged visas and all-expenses-paid lives.
I skirt round them like a shadow, and make a direct line for the bus stop at the corner.
He’s sliding into me, his body pressing down so hard I can barely breathe. I stretch my stilettoed heel up and against the white wall, reach my arm back to push against the wall behind, and move with him. I ignore the hard tiled floor beneath my back, wriggling slightly to position his coat under the small of my back. I’m gratified that he laid out his coat. We’ve used mine so many times it’ll need a dry-clean soon; I sometimes imagine it might have picked up a permanent smell of the disinfectant aroma of the changeroom.
He arches his back to stretch up and reaches down to touch me. I can’t last long; neither can he, as he slows down, whispering, ‘Oh oui, qu’est-ce que c’est bon,’. His eyes are closed as I look up at him, the sight of him so beautiful. Oh god…I’m spinning in a wave of pleasure, I close my eyes and plunge down somewhere deep and intense as I gasp and he clamps my lips gently with his fingers to muffle the sound. As I finally subside, a laugh of happiness wells up in me and he smiles back, then closes his eyes again, and breathes, ‘Oui...’ as I feel his warmth flooding through me, and cascading on my belly as he pulls back, a touch too late.
We smile at each other and go through the quiet business of mopping up with handfuls of tissue paper. He moves to the basin and I sit up, sticky and happy, leaning back on the palms of my hands, my eyes moving over his strong back with its fading tanline, then travelling over his firm white buttocks and his dark-haired thighs. Tristan is a soccer player, and a cyclist, with a compact, fit body – he works hard to keep it that way. As I stand up to sidle up behind him, my arms snaking round him, my lips on his neck, I can feel, with a fondness, the flab of his belly which has developed a little – just a little – over the last few months. He loves good food – I know he eats well every lunchtime, from the taste of garlic when we kiss in the afternoons. Every lunchbreak I think he goes to eat pasta with his French colleagues.
‘That was amazing!’ he whispers, his eyes lit with warmth as he looks at me through the mirror and I nestle my body beside him. We both contemplate the picture we make. My body so small next to his, fitting perfectly under his shoulder. Our eyes bright.
‘Hmmm, so sexy!’ he murmurs, his eyes travelling down to the tops of my stockings, his fingers caressing the lace belt. I laugh and we get dressed, quickly. I kneel down and hand him his white shirt; it’s almost domestic. He leaves first, I quickly survey the scene to check we haven’t left anything, then click the door open. I walk past the lifts of the office block, arranging my work bag as if I’ve just come straight from my desk.
On the concrete ramp behind my office building, he holds me tight. His bike leans against the wall, red helmet dangling off the handlebars, his warm neck smells lightly of his aftershave as my lips glide over it, tracing the line where his short black hair meets his skin. I lean into him and let him envelop me.
His hands are on my waist and he’s whispering in my ear, breathing his softly accented words into me. The way he murmurs so lightly makes it hard sometimes to work out if he’s saying, ‘I love you’ or ‘I love it’ but both are okay, though I prefer the former.
After, I ride fast up the hill to William Street, knowing his eyes are on me, and fly home alongside the peak-hour traffic, the warmth of him filling my chest, my eyes as luminous as the city lights around me.
Silence hangs heavy in the empty hallway. A shaft of autumn sun falls across the bare floorboards and I fix my eyes on it, cradling Emil in my arms as we wait for the taxi. He’s in a kind of shock but holding up well, quiet in my arms, his favourite cuddly tiger clenched in one fist.
All the furniture is gone – now it’s just us and our last few pieces of luggage piled around us like sandbags. Alex stands on the other side of them, his hands in his pockets. I can’t see his expression as the door is open and the morning light is behind him. In his long coat he looms menacing and melancholy.
But I won’t have to sit here under his oppressive gaze much longer. My ears are straining for the taxi.
When it arrives Alex doesn’t say much, as he grudgingly helps load the bags into the boot. He stands at the gate, his arms helpless by his side as we take off. I want to ask the driver to go as fast as he can. I’m still cradling Emil. I hunch down in the seat and don’t look back. My eyes are fixed on the traffic lights, willing them to stay green as we hurtle south.
Our new place is small and the paint is greyed and flaking but my heart is starting to sing as I throw open the kitchen window that looks down over the shared back garden. I set out my potplants on the rickety back verandah, the trembling in my hands gradually easing, and I stride across the creaky boards of the living room, my favourite picture in my outstretched arms.
My gaze sweeps over the rounded walls, the stained glass, the cracked cornices, and the first thing I want to do is hang my paintings. I tear open their boxes, one after the other, rip through their newspaper wrapping, and find places for them on the walls, until there is barely a space left and the room is vibrant with my colours – the azure sea, the ochre of cliffs like crushed velvet, the swirling magenta sunset sky, and the inky blue of midnight lit with stars.
I step back to look at them, tears of hope warming in my eyes and I tell myself I’m going to be okay.
I don’t know if it ‘s the cold making my eyes sting or the shock around my heart. I walk, I keep walking, along the gritty streets, trying to concentrate enough not to get hit by a car when my eyesight is wavering and blurring with exhaustion, with horror and the howl of my emotions stripped bare.
This is what it’s going to be like when Tristan is gone is what echoes and rings through my body. I couldn’t see him today as he was home recovering from a bike accident – it’s Friday, we always see each other on Fridays – thank god he’s okay, not injured, just sore and aching and shocked – but my body is shaking with the horror that now I won’t see him till Monday, that’s a break of three days not two like usual – but the real horror is that in eight weeks time every Friday will be like this, every day will be like this, alone under the screaming sky, alone in the whipping wind, with my red-rimmed eyes, my seizing heart.
I realise I will have to start wearing sunglasses as I walk these pointless anonymous city streets with my aloneness.
Because he’s leaving, he’s going back to France, with his wife and kids.
I could go too, but then Emil would never see Alex. I can’t do that to my child. Regardless of how hateful Alex has been to me, refusing to acknowledge our relationship’s dead, refusing to accept it was over years ago, and all I’m trying to do now is find the way I want to live.
The twisted irony of finally walking away, freeing myself - to then lose Tristan – sits like lead in my gut, like something that will make me sick.
We’ve have been through all the scenarios, we’ve talked through them together, late nights in the warm red light of my bedroom, sitting on a bench in the church garden in our lunchbreaks, then – as the winter closed in – in cafés and bars, discreet places I find for us, where we sit in booths, our arms round each other, whispering. My head falls to his shoulder, every second sentence ends in a gentle brushing of lips and his serious gaze is close to mine, so close I can see every fleck, every strain around his eyes, every fleeting fear.
I talk a lot with my neighbour Angie, gripping my coffee cup in her kitchen or mine, while Emil is playing with Finn in our living room or theirs, across the landing.
As a single mum my life has unfolded, unfurled like a silk scarf floating in the breeze. My flat is borderless; open to visitors night and day, my weeks are fluid and vivid with work, afternoons helping at kinder, my painting, the arts association, my new painting group. Suddenly I can do anything. I lurch between giddy ascents into exhilaration and sickening plunges into dark.
My new life is a searing screaming ride at Luna Park under the glittering stars of a tipping night sky, heaving and gulping huge tracts of sharp winter air, stars glinting like knife slits or prayerful diamonds.
My old life has been so easily cleaved away like a thick canvas cut through with a murderously sharp Stanley knife, pallid heavy sheets of it tumbling to the floor. That inner-north life in the solid brick terrace with Alex, with the thick walls and the rules, the heavy silence of failure and constant treading on thin ice, is a black-and-white film that appears mostly just in my nightmares.
Angie taps her chipped red nail on the Laminex table as we huddle over our coffee. She sighs a little, and I know what’s coming.
‘Honey,’ she begins, reaching over to briefly clasp my knuckles. ‘Are you sure about this?’ She tucks her brown stray curls behind her ear, and fixes her clear hazel eyes on me. She’s a volunteer counsellor at Lifeline: it crosses my mind she’s practising on me.
‘I know it’s a long shot,’ I begin, twisting my cup round in awkward circles on the table, grasping for the words. I need to talk about this, it’s the only way I can test out how crazy it is. ‘And I wouldn’t wish a long-distance relationship on my worst enemy.’
She cocks an eyebrow. ‘Who’s your worst enemy then?’
I know what she’s thinking. It’s me. I grimace and shrug. ‘Look, the thing is – there’s nothing else we can do. We’d originally planned to have a kind of transition time for these last few weeks, you know, just see each other as friends – but as it’s gotten closer, we couldn’t, we ...’ I search for the words as her gaze stays on me, sombre.
‘We just don’t want it to end. He says he doesn’t want to end.’ I gulp some coffee, feeling I can believe it.
‘He’s going to try to come back,’ I say in a rush. ‘He’s staying on the same project so that he can – he just needs to sort things out first,’ I trail off at this point.
‘You mean he needs to tell his wife about it,’ says Angie matter-of-factly. ‘And leave her.’
She looks out the window at the seagulls circling outside. ‘And leave his kids behind.’
We sit silent, both watching the seagulls. Their downward circling.
I nod, and our gazes meet. Neither of us say anything for a moment.
I hear Angie’s light sigh. ‘You know Mira, it takes a hell of a lot to put a bomb under a family.’ Her gaze is kind. ‘I honestly don’t think you should hang all your hopes on this. I mean, sure – maybe he’ll come back – but – who knows? Maybe he won’t, maybe it’ll just be…’
She hesitates and I look across the table at her as if her words will seal my fate.
Too hard. The words float to the ground sadly. But to me the words too hard are a gauntlet thrown down. I’m a fighter, I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
‘What’s too hard?’ Emil is in the doorway, his helicopter dangling from one hand. He holds it out to me.
‘What’s happened to your helicopter sweetheart?’ asks Angie, reaching over to inspect it, just as I manage a smile and say, too quickly, ‘Nothing darling!’
Emil looks from me to Angie and back to me.
‘I think the battery just needs recharging...’ says Angie, wresting it out of the back of the toy. She smiles at Emil. ‘Do you want to find the recharger Emil, and see if you can work it?’
I’m filled with gratitude for Angie. As I watch my son busily pulling open drawers, hauling out the stool to get to the top cupboards, I think, Two months ago, he would have asked me to do it. I smile and as I look round my warm chaotic kitchen. Thank god at least I have Emil.
I whisper a brave silent plea that maybe this can almost be enough.
The phone rings on the wall. I jump for it, hoping it’s Tristan. It’s not, it’s Steve from the painting group, asking if I want to come and have a beer tonight. I say yes, I invite Angie, and later as we lean against the wall at the Espy, watching a band, I sip on my beer, the day dwindling to its end. I rest my head back against the sticky wall, the thrash of the band reverberating through my temples, and I let my eyes drift across the bay, catching on the twinkling lights of ships.
I turn away when my stomach twists and wrenches, slapped with the sudden shock that these are container ships. One of them will carry his life away soon, in a big metal box, dirty cold steel encasing his belongings. His sterile furniture, dragged once again across the churning sea to their sleek two-storied home in a gated community on the outskirts of Toulouse.
I’ve been dreading the end of this day. It’s our sixteen month anniversary but like every Saturday now, it’s also the dismantling of another week. As I drain my beer, I feel the thudding of the relentless alarm clock in my chest which has just ticked over to six weeks left.
I throw my gaze up to the dusty art-deco ceiling. It’s an impulse, to stop the tears brimming, to distract myself, to look detached to any casual observer, or maybe to look for something up there in those dark corners, to pray to invisible angels in the cobwebs.
I can’t believe we’ve only just realised how the sink in here is the perfect height for me to perch, trembling with the effort not to fall, as Tristan stands before me, naked under his white shirt. He gently pushes apart my legs to lock the heel of my right shoe over the rim of the basin, lifts my left leg up against the wall, then he grips my hips.
His engineer’s skill at manoeuvring my body, his gentle unassuming creativity, the way he suggests this way or that with his soft questioning hands, fills me with delight as I acquiesce.
I am ready, poised on the edge of the sink, a taut-thighed trapeze artist in a breathtaking pose. He casts his eyes up and down over me, and is gasping and urgent as he moves in, as his rhythm accelerates, and with his lips on my neck, his breathless murmurs are the whispers of a happily drowning man, a man succumbing. As he pulls away to drop to his knees and bury his head into me, I reach down to touch the smooth shiny blackness of his hair between my fingers. I caress tentatively then I run my fingers through his hair, I look down at him flooded with a rush of amazement at his beauty and that he is with me, he is mine.
He reverberates through me with his wordless knowledge of my body, and I luxuriate in his expert delicacy, I tip my head back against the mirror and give myself over, as he glides me upwards in an arc of joy. As I laugh the incredulous, almost tearful laugh of my happiness, he rises from his knees to grab my hips and pull me to him again, to gently, rapidly moan into my ear as he jolts me back and forth, whispering, ‘Don’t move’. Within moments I feel him trembling, then diving into his primordial need, his deep sigh of release. I drink up every drop of his pleasure into the embrace of my body.
After, he smooths his jeans out across the floor to sit on, and draws me down on to his lap. We’re both still naked, our skins lightly sweating now despite the thirteen degree day outside. I reach over to my handbag and scrabble around, then draw out a brightly wrapped ginger chocolate bar, bought from the market this morning. I like to linger five minutes longer there on my weekly shop, to pick something out for us to share.
‘I got this for you,’ I show it to him. ‘as a pre-soccer snack,’ I smile back at him as he opens it and breaks the bar carefully in two.
I settle onto his warm thighs as we eat the chocolate together. ‘So how was your day, darling?’ he asks me. ‘What about your meeting?’ His soft low voice echoes off the cool white walls.
‘Oh it was fine in the end!’ I breathe a sigh of relief. ‘I’d thought it was going to be a lot worse – I thought I was going to have to explain why the catalogue wasn’t ready for the exhibition opening next week. But no one even asked me about it!’
I laugh, brushing aside the actual anxiety I had felt. These days I never have time to get everything done, now that I’m the one doing all the housework, rushing between the office and Tristan and kinder, and throwing myself into my painting every night when Emil’s asleep, the dishes are done and the flat is shrouded in peaceful quiet light. Work has become a thing I cram in on the side of my life – this job with the Office for Community Arts I should be grateful for, working with artists (real, paid artists) while I struggle to get even one showing a year of my own work.
Part of me thinks that once Tristan has gone, I won’t be running out of the office at three o’clock anymore. My work will get done on time, there will be none of these anxious meetings, or mornings furiously scribbling notes to myself at the kitchen table on how to explain why something wasn’t finished yesterday. I tell myself this will be an upside of his absence.
I look at him to check he understood. I think he has. He smiles and squeezes me. ‘You see? I told you, you were worrying for nothing. You’re an efficient woman, Mira, no one is going to notice if you didn’t finish something when you planned to, because they know you will do it in time, you won’t let them down!’
‘That’s true, I guess,’ I shrug off his support modestly. ‘How about you, chéri? How was your day?’
‘It was busy, as always...’ He doesn’t say much about his work anymore, now the guy has started who will be taking over his job. He’s in handover mode. Detaching.
‘And...’ he strokes my back gently. ‘How about your new painting, how is it going? When am I going to come and see it?’
‘Oh...’ I frown slightly, involuntarily, at the complexities emerging with this piece. It started out as a depiction of the city skyline – how I’ve seen it those mornings when I cycle into work, the song of the skyline soaring above me, beside me, yearning with me, the glass-plated buildings rockets of lean hope shooting upward, blazing sheets of light – and each time I see this vision of refracted beauty, I ache with the words why won’t you stay. The morning sun blinding me, I ask myself in frustration: how can you say no?
To this vista of beauty and blue sky.
My breathing gradually steadies as I sit at the lights, waiting for green, poised on the pedal, feeling my aloneness as I contemplate this dazzling blue and silver. Then one morning I pushed back the tears, pushed back at the dome of blue loneliness encasing me, and told myself with gritted teeth I’m going to paint this.
I sigh, and trace my fingertips along his neckline. I breathe in his aftershave. ‘It’s developing!’ I try to laugh and keep my mood light, while at the same time I’m concentrating with the utmost seriousness on telling him exactly what I feel, giving him my truth. It’s almost religious, my devotion to openness with him. He listens to me.
‘It started out a simple thing – just the morning sky, the sharpness of the clear winter air, and I wanted to capture...’ I look at him cautiously, ‘the clarity of my feelings, how I love you...’
He smiles. He likes it. He understands. My cheeks flood with a rush of warmth.
‘But now other things are weaving themselves in around the edges, a kind of – hysteria – desperation – hope that’s stretched so tight like a string that might break… I didn’t plan it like this!’
‘Like what - what do you mean?’ He looks at me in concern. ‘Is it your stress coming through, Mira?’ He kisses me lightly and brushes a strand of hair away from my eyes.
‘Maybe! Maybe this desperation, this darkness needs to be there... the other night I suddenly wanted to include a figure, a sole figure on the balcony of one of the buildings – I was thinking a kind of angel, an other-worldly thing, a kind of hovering bright shadow. But when I drew her, she became more like an orphan or a ghost, or a small lost girl… in a long blue velvet dress, with lace sleeves, her hair is bright gold, she’s kind of medieval. She doesn’t fit at all with the skyscrapers. She brings a kind of haunting sadness, a shadow, a question.’ I frown in frustration.
‘Hmm! Maybe it’s interesting, what do you think?’
‘I don’t know, you should come over this weekend and have a look,’ I lay my head on his shoulder. ‘Give me some advice!’
He nods, and I can feel he’s trying not to look at his watch, but it’s getting late, so I shift my weight and reach over for our clothes. We start to dress. I help him draw his soft grey jumper over his shirt, and he steadies me, his hand on my waist, as I reach down to pull on my stockings.
When I lie in his arms the warmth is an ancient sun-warmed stone in a place where I can breathe deep and without words.
When we lie in the dark together whispering – about anything, when he tells me every French national holiday, when I tell him the story of the dismissal of the Prime Minister in 1975, when he tells me about a song he heard, when I tell him word for word what happened with my staff member who always has a headache when I ask her to do something… we hold each other tight and his skin moulds into mine, then I turn so he can enfold me closer, and he keeps holding me, he doesn’t want to let go.
I sit on the steps of my back balcony, in the wind and sun of this unexpected early spring, and as I watch the sheets blowing and dancing on the washing line below, I contemplate the ten days we have left.
I prod this fact. Somehow, now that he’s promising to come back, and we have a plan for next year, this looming date is less like a horrifying chasm and more like an unpleasant medicine to force down. At least over the months he’s gone, the advancing summer will walk beside me, it’s invisible calming hand on my shoulder.
I shift my weight on the cold iron step and look down at my rounded belly.
It’s time to do it. I have the peace and quiet this bright Saturday morning, with Emil at Alex’s, all the chores done, the flat silent. I can’t put it off any longer.
In the bathroom I peel the tester out of its plastic, I quietly, calmly, go through the procedure, then I start timing. I use the three minutes to wander over to my artroom –a tiny atrium adjoining the living room, sunlight streaming in through windows on three sides.
My current piece sits waiting and screaming questions at me on the easel. The angel standing motionless, her hands outstretched, in the cool shadows of her windy balcony, seems to have an expectant look to her today. I look back at her in silence.
Time’s up. I make myself walk back slowly; I almost stroll to the bathroom.
The moment hangs motionless as I look at the double lines.
We sit in the laneway with our arms wrapped round each other, and I ask tentatively, ‘And the kids? Do you ever think about that...?’
He nods. ‘Barbecues on the beach...’ he murmurs.
‘Road trips together!’
‘Yes, what was that place you went last summer...?’
‘Byron Bay!’ My eyes light up for the first time in days and he smiles at me.
‘We’ll dance together,’ that makes me say, with certainty.
And we will, and I’ll laugh with the exhilaration of dancing in the subtropical night with him, with the sheer happiness of being finally in the life I want.
It’s early morning, barely light.
We press our cheeks close together, warm skin touching warm skin, in the softly lit corner of the cafe. The number 61 on our table, his short black, my long macchiato sitting almost untouched.
Then we stand clinging to one another in William Street, outside an elegant pale stone building – somehow appropriate in its dignity and grace. Tears run down his cheeks and there is a strain in his dark-ringed eyes that has crept in over these last days. I can only suppose I look equally as drained.
He fixes his gaze on me unable to speak as I push out words we need. ‘We can have a good life together,’ I whisper, a smile of hope breaking through. ‘With our kids!’
I stroke his beautiful jawline and kiss him one last time, then take a deep breath and say bravely, ‘That’s it now.’
I pick up my bag, and after our last whispered goodbye, our last fleeting kiss, turn to walk away.
At work I am gentle with my staff, I spend an hour going through a process in slow, calm detail, I make sure everyone understands what they need to do.
I clean my desk, I walk softly on the soundless carpet to fetch my tea, aromatic and warming.
I stay for maybe three hours then I can’t hold it together anymore, I whisper my goodbyes to my colleagues, who hug me with compassion, and I catch the lift alone, holding my gaze in the mirrored wall, down to my bike.
I cycle bent over into the wind as fast as I can along the beachfront, and as the solid ivory square of Lisieux emerges in the streetscape, I straighten up and take my feet off the pedals. I hear my wracked breathing and feel my heart jumping under my coat.
I park my bike, lock it to a No Parking sign, and clamber awkwardly on to the rocky ledge overlooking the bay. I am shivering unstoppably as I claw my coat around me.
I twist around and my eyes are drawn across the road, through the constant stream of traffic hurtling past anonymous and unknowing. I look into Lisieux, the pale interior of this silent peaceful room, lit with the soft glow of a chandelier over the long gleaming table.
A vase of tall flowers stands in its centre, their fronds arching delicately upward, radiating warm orange.
My eyes hurt with longing for the life I want with Tristan. I turn and look out to the churning indigo sea. At once my face collapses, finally allowed now I’m alone - I let the tears flow unheeded, I hear my light high-pitched wail as my body shakes with sobs.
I stop when I notice a man looking with concern at me, parked in his truck twenty metres away. I pull down my sunglasses and keep my gaze fixed out to sea.
I watch the ships for some time.
Angel on the Balcony
I shift from one high heel to the other, the cold of the concrete floor seeping up through my thin steep sole. Should have worn boots on a cold night like this instead of these crazy stacked sandals with patterned tights. Somehow I’d thought the fun and kind of offbeat glamour of the night would magically sweep away any cold or discomfort – but so far it’s not really working. I take a sip of the cheap gallery wine out of the plastic beaker I’m clutching, and look round to check if Mum’s arrived yet.
She hasn’t. As I glance at the time on my phone it occurs to me that maybe she won’t, if she’s having a bad night – even though it’s the first showing of her work that’s not just some kind of Arts Association event for the bunch of local eccentrics she used to drink and paint with.
Hmmm. I look round at the crowd of arty people who all seem to know each other. Should have brought Tom.
I grimace at the acidity of the wine, and catch Adam’s eye across the room. He raises his glass, so I decide to saunter over to him – as he’s the only person I really know here to talk to. Apart from that raffish old guy Steve who hangs round my mum with this sad devoted hangdog look – I know he’s been secretly in love with her since before I was born, and I can’t help thinking what a loser. He’s milling round the entry with a clutch of their old artist friends in their musty velvet jackets and fur trim coats with thin op shop dresses underneath. They’re all sculling so much free wine though, I bet they’re not feeling the cold.
‘So what do you think, Lisette, do you like the show?’ Adam looks at me with a slight anxiety – he’s been Mum’s unpaid agent for twenty years, he wants it to be a success. I always figured he called himself her agent because he couldn’t paint himself, but loved the glitzy seedy world they moved in back then. Nights of free entry to exhibitions, free drinks, stumbling home after. Adam always there to make sure she didn’t get mugged or lost teetering through the dark leafy sidestreets.
Even just looking at Adam brings back memories of being dragged awake by the muffled voices and heels clattering up the stairs, my mum’s voice a mix of girlish laughter and maternal concern, chiding, ‘Sshh, shshh, the kids are asleep!’, bottles opening, wine pouring and spilling, the clunk of the needle hitting a Nick Cave record.
‘I’m just glad she’s finally got it together!’ I smile back at him. ‘And it’s not a bad turnout, considering!’
‘Considering?’ I see his anxiety creep up a notch, the furrows in his brow deepening slightly.
I laugh. ‘Yeah, you know, because Mum’s got this thing of no Facebook, no social media – just word of mouth advertising! She’s so anti-Internet, dead against having an online presence, you know how - ’ I stop myself before I say crazy. That’s a sensitive word amongst her old friends who helped keep her out of hospital back when she was at her lowest point.
I change the subject. ‘Anyway, Angel on the Balcony looks great as the centrepiece.’ We both wander towards it and gaze up at it.
The lights set around the painting accentuate the intense blue of the sky, and of the angel’s dress. My eyes travel over the streams of sunlight glinting off the skyscrapers, golden rivers that glide through the air, between the buildings, illuminating the curve of a soaring small red balloon, the optimistic edge of a flag flying from a pole, swirling round the upper reaches of the city. I stand motionless for a moment, contemplating this song of melancholic beauty.
‘What do you think the angel means?’ I turn to Adam. ‘I’ve never really understood this painting!’
Adam shrugs, twirling slightly on his heels. He looks down at me sideways. ‘You know Mira painted it when she was pregnant with you?’
I nod. ‘Yes, she’s told me that – how it was the last thing she painted for years too.’ I look casually round – no, still not here.
I sigh. ‘But I don’t think the angel’s meant to be me!’ I add a laugh to show I don’t mean anything bad with that. I’m not alluding to the fact my mum doesn’t seem to know or care I exist, and maybe never cared, that maybe I was the mistake that sent her life spiralling downwards. The leftovers – aftermath - of my dad.
Adam smiles wryly; he’s probably starting to wonder too if she’ll turn up tonight, to her own opening. ‘Who knows?’ he replies, draining his cup of vinegary wine and clearing his throat. ‘But you’re right, she didn’t paint anything after this for years.’ He pauses. ‘I don’t know how much she told you about it all?’
I redden involuntarily. I can feel, despite his careful words, that Mum has told him she doesn’t communicate with me, that we hardly know anything about each other’s lives. I don’t know what to say. People flit around us and someone pushes another wine into Adam’s hand.
I finally reply, ‘Oh well, I know things were tough when I was born. My dad wasn’t around.’ My flush deepens and I can feel the sudden heat of tears rising. Those words seem to have dropped through me with more weight than I could have imagined. What is this about? God I am an idiot to not bring Tom tonight.
‘And I guess you know I’ve never met him,’ I stare Adam defiantly in the eye. He meets my gaze, and I can tell he’s a little afraid of my sudden intensity. I’m a little afraid of it myself – I never talk about my dad – or my mum, for that matter.
‘I know, Lisette,’ he says gently. ‘I’m really sorry about how all that went for your mum. It was an awful time.’ He looks down at the wine he’s agitating round in his glass. There’s a heavy silence as we both look up at the painting.
Adam coughs and adds quickly, with a new edge to his voice, ‘Good that he never came back on the scene though. That would have been disastrous.’
‘What?’ My head jerks sideways to scrutinise him. He’s looking grimly down at his wine sloshing in hectic waves in his glass.
I frown, not sure what to ask, then press my lips together and look away. We both know it’s wrong to talk about it here, to bring back these shadows of grief on a night which is as close to a celebration as Mum’s ever going to get. Anyway – we both smile in relief and move gingerly apart - she’s arrived.
She’s caught up in the swirl of her old friends, they’re smudging her cheek with their lipstick kisses and handing her wine. She’s probably already had a few, judging by the stains of colour in her cheeks and her high-pitched gaiety, which tonight, luckily, comes across as a happily uninhibited vivacity. Adam and I move over to her and wait our turn to kiss her congratulations, I pose with her for photos, our arms firmly clenched round each other’s waists, both trying to outdo each other’s smiles.
And at the end of the night, when the last stragglers have staggered off to a bar further down Acland St, when the staff have emerged to sweep up the crumbs and toss armloads of plastic cups into their black garbage bags, Adam, Steve, Mum and I are standing in a semi-circle at the door. Steve wants the honour of walking her home, he’s loving the chance to keep touching her arm, patting her back, hugging her. She puts up with it as patiently as she always did. Adam’s hanging round the edges like he always did, his warm eyes fixed on her.
I’m hanging round because I feel like I should, though I’m not sure, I’m really not sure what I’m doing and I can feel my unsureness like an ache written across my face, a counterpoint to the ache in the soles of my feet.
I’m up at the same time as always the next morning, despite the late night and four cheap wines. I slide into my ballet flats, the ones I can walk to the tramstop in. I brush my black hair severely back into a ponytail and observe myself in the mirror above the dresser. My eyes are dark and quiet and there’s something sad there today.
I shrug it off.
I gather my laptop and phone and chargers, store them neatly in my uni bag and click the door shut behind me.
My heart’s racing out of control, pumping like it has a life of its own and is about to leap right out of my chest, violently. I grip the phone so hard I almost switch it off by accident. My face is hot and I don’t care who can hear me on this morning peak hour tram.
‘What – did you say?’ I can barely get the words out for the tightness in my throat.
The background noise is louder than Tom’s voice. He’s standing in line for a coffee in his Collins St office block, in the café in the foyer. I close my eyes, stabbed with the thought I might never go there with him again.
‘Honey, I know it’s sudden.’ I can sense his boyish enthusiasm brimming under his careful tone of regret. He’s excited with this news and trying not to show it. ’It may only be a few months – maybe just a year. And we still have a few days…?’
I don’t say anything, I can’t. Tears of rage are choking me and there’s a film reel running through my head of all the savage words I want to say, viperous words, but they would kill any chance of a future, and right now I don’t know what I want.
‘Lisette, are you there?’ He sounds uncertain. ‘Honey, remember I told you I might get this offer – remember, London was always going to be an option?’
I swallow. ‘That was ages ago.’ When we first got together. ‘I didn’t think – I thought…’ I can’t go on. What I want is for him to say he doesn’t want this transfer anymore, or even just for him to ask if I can come too – or even visit – but he says none of those things.
Something curdles inside me and I feel my face set like stone. I glance sideways at my reflection in the dim early light, the charcoal grey of the June morning. My hair glints like black armour. My lipstick like blood. I set my jaw and stare back at my reflection.
I push my way past the black-clad knees pressing in around me and yank on the cord as the tram swerves around the corner, twisting away from the icy seafront, wheels screeching.
I get off at Mum’s place, I’m not thinking straight as I skittle along Fitzroy Street, pushed by the wind off the sea, my ponytail flying and slapping my cheek. As I’m running, I’m texting jittery texts to my classmate and best friend Georgia Fuck him, it’s over! NO WAY I’m hanging round for him for a year while he lives it up over there! Can you let Prof Gassin know je ne viens pas aujourd’hui, je suis en crise!!
You’re better off without him, don’t worry babe, you’ll find a way better option within a week! Georgia texts back. Come to the Politics bar crawl tomorrow, we’ll sort you out! 😊
I don’t want to get sorted out right now.
I bang on Mum’s door. I’ve never done this before, if I stopped to think for a minute I know I wouldn’t do it – I’d get back down to the tramstop and hop on the next tram, get myself to uni, be the sensible level-headed girl I am.
But for some reason, today – maybe I’m just tired and bleary after the wines last night – today I’m not that girl.
Mum is clearly surprised to see me at her door. She’s in her dressing gown holding a coffee. As she leans against the door and looks at me with her big black-smudged eyes, she brings her coffee to her lips to take a slow sip. Her gaze doesn’t leave mine.
‘Can I come in?’ My eyes fill with tears.
‘Of course, darling!’ She quickly reaches out to me and draws me in out of the cold. As she hustles me into the kitchen and goes through the business of putting on the coffee, she frowns and gives me a puzzled look. ‘Don’t you have uni today, love?’
I drop into a chair at the table and push aside two wineglasses, remnants of last night.
‘Mum, Tom’s moving to London next week. For work.’ I clamp my hands together, still shivering from the cold walk. I’d been too distracted to zip up my jacket or put my gloves back on.
She turns to me and her face falls. ‘Oh, darling,’
She comes over and hugs me. I shake with sobs as she cradles me, rocks me gentler than I can ever recall. She smells of stale perfume and wine but she’s warm and cocooning me in her soft pink dressing gown, and I let the tears flow.
‘I don’t know why I’m crying!’ I finally manage to choke out. I try a laugh. ‘I’m not even really that into him! It’s not like we were going to move in together or anything – but I just – I can’t believe he’s leaving me! I’m just shocked…’
‘I know, I know,’ Mum murmurs. She strokes my hair and pulls away as we hear the coffee steaming up through the pot on the stovetop.
‘I mean, he’s so boring!’ I continue with heaving sobs. ‘I don’t even spend a lot of time with him – I never thought he’s like – you know, ‘the one’ for me – but – I just can’t believe this! He must have known before today!’
‘Maybe,’ Mum replies, her voice soft. I can’t see her expression, her back is turned. ‘Or maybe not. You might never know, sweetheart.’
I watch her as she gathers cups and milk, the mussed up back of her blonde hair, the dressing gown cord tied firmly round her waist, her wrinkly hands that were once beautiful. She stoops a little and her lips are trembling. As she places my cup down in front of me and sits opposite, she smiles sadly, wearily.
‘Men,’ she says finally. She lowers her eyelids, and I suddenly feel she’s about to cry herself.
I half-smile and shrug. ‘Yeah, who needs them?’ The hollowness of that makes me rush to change the subject.
‘Last night was good?’ I offer.
Her eyes light up a little. ‘Yeah, it was fun. Adam’s done so much for me – putting that show together, getting the space for the night. I think it went pretty well.’ She doesn’t sound completely certain.
‘Any buyers?’ I firmly push thoughts of Tom down, I decide in that split second I don’t care. I slowly rotate my cup round on the table, as if drilling down the lid on him, on us.
She shrugs vaguely. ‘A couple of people were interested in Angel on the Balcony, and in another earlier one. Adam’s going to give me a call about it today.’ She yawns and stretches her arms upward. ‘Though I don’t know if I want to part with Angel! I wouldn’t mind if no one ever buys it really.’
‘What’s it actually about?’
She looks out the window to the backyard, her eyes glazing over. ‘Oh… a feeling I guess. A feeling I had at the time.’ She gets up and starts to move some dishes around on the draining board, turning her back to me.
‘Hope,’ her voice is shaky. ‘Love. Optimism. Beauty.’
I can hear she’s crying, and her shoulders shake with the frailty of spring leaves.
‘And the angel represents…’ She hesitates, gripping the side of the bench. ‘The small kernel of fear, the fear of loss, the fear things won’t work out. Or even - the sadness of knowing they won’t.’
She turns back to me and wipes away a single rolling tear with the back of her hand. ‘Which is what happened – so in a way I predicted it, I painted it. The moment before the angel falls off the balcony.’
‘Mum,’ I interject. ‘Why didn’t you ever do anything about it? Go and find him? And why – why didn’t you tell him you were pregnant with me?’
I’ve finally spoken these words. I sit loosely holding my coffee cup, my eyes fixed on her.
She tugs at her sleeve with nervous fingers and casts her eyes downward. I can see the blue of her leftover eyeshadow shimmering on her eyelids. Her tear is slowly tracing a dirty grey track down her cheek.
‘And when I was born, why didn’t you tell him then?’ I look at her curiously, wondering if my direct questioning will tip her over.
But it doesn’t – she comes back to the table and sits opposite me. ‘Darling, I couldn’t keep in contact with him. I …’ she looks at me helplessly. ‘I just … I gave up on him. He said he was coming back – I think, I really believe he wanted to … but ... months went by and he … I think he just couldn’t.’
I watch two more tears travel in slow sorrowful lines down her cheeks. ‘He couldn’t.’ she whispers again. ‘I think it was just…’
She brings her coffee cup up to her lips as if to warm them, and looks at me. ‘… Too hard.’
I kind of know the bare bones of this story, I’ve heard these lines, but I still don’t get it, and for once I plough on.
‘What do you mean, it was too hard? And that he couldn’t? If he wanted to?’
She’s silent for a moment, searching for words. She looks at her empty hands. ‘It wasn’t that simple, Lisette … yes he wanted to, we kept in touch, but it wasn’t easy and I … I didn’t know how to tell him about you, or when ... I didn’t want to pressure him ...’
‘You didn’t want to pressure him? What? I was his responsibility too!’ I stare at her in disbelief. ‘What if you’d told him, and he’d come back then?’ I swallow. ‘Everything would have been completely different – wasn’t that what you wanted?’ Unbidden images of a life flash through my mind – a life of living in a house, with a car, with a dad who mows the lawns, a dad speaking kindly to me, a brother playing cricket with him, and Mum laughing, staying young, sitting beside him, arms around each other.
She’s shaking her head in a kind of confusion, her face flushed. ‘I don’t know Lisette … I wasn’t in a good way … I stopped thinking it was possible with Tristan, I had to stop, I couldn’t go on hoping ...’
‘But Mum, why? Why did you give up? Why didn’t you go over there or something?’ My voice is lifting with impatience. ‘Why not? How could you just give up?’
‘Have you never asked yourself this?’ I try not to shout but my anger is rising in a torrent, a surging king tide. ‘If it mattered so much … you’ve spent so many years on him … wasting your life … and he’s my DAD for fuck’s sake!’ My voice breaks and I bring my hands up to cup my eyes.
‘So – did you stop contacting him, is that how it was?’ I don’t look at her but I know she’s sitting there silent and motionless.
‘Why didn’t you go and find him?’ I insist.
Mum continues to say nothing, and through my heaving sobs it hits me there’s a kind of guilt coming off her. Guilt? I think hazily. I’ve never known that from my mum. Guilt at giving up.
I pick up a red-stained wineglass and slam it down again. ‘Instead of wasting your life!’ She blushes, she knows what I mean.
‘Fuck it,’ I say, my eyes stinging with anger. I look across at her, meet her wide-eyed look. ‘I’ll go and find him myself.’
Mum hangs tentatively in the doorway to my bedroom – my old bedroom. I’ve come home for these last days, for evenings cradling cups of tea with her, listening to the stories starting to unfold gradually as she finds her voice for them. They’re sweet and slow tendrils of smoke, like eucalypt campfire.
I’m stuffing my backpack as she hovers in the door, twisting something in her hand.
I glance up and smile. ‘Look,’ I say, gesturing at the top layer of clothes toppling out of the bag. ‘I’m taking that old Kookai dress of yours!’
She frowns in a kind of mild confusion.
‘So I can show him,’ I add. I straighten up. ‘I can show my dad. I bet he’ll remember it, won’t he?’
Mum can’t help smiling as she steps over and picks up the red dress, shiny and tight-fitted, with the deep V at the front. Impossibly unprofessional, but in his last midwinter weeks these are the things she wore anyway, oblivious to the sidelong glances. Existing only for him.
She holds it up to watch it fall in shimmering folds. ‘It’s the one I wore the last morning I saw him,’ she says softly, her eyes faraway.
She’s told me so many stories this last fortnight, since I booked the flight. The time they cycled along the creek and stopped somewhere by a vast concrete drain – ugly, not what he’d wanted – but they’d stopped, waded through long harsh yellow weeds, with their bikes, and sat down against a tree. He’d cradled her in his arms and they’d talked about films in the spring evening sun.
And the time they’d gone to the Gin Palace, her in her black lace dress, and he’d leaned forward to whisper, in his best French stereotype, ‘Je te veux Mira...’ and then, ‘Maybe we can go to the changeroom?’, his eyes narrow with intent. She’d looked at him, insulted; she’d wanted to go out for a romantic dinner. They’d argued on the treacherous slope of Flinders Lane and parted, brokenly, to lie awake all night and reconcile at South Melbourne Market the next afternoon. He’d taken her hand gently as they crossed the street; she hadn’t cycled that day but caught the tram, afraid of an accident after no sleep.
Since she sold Angel to give me the money it’s unleashed something new in her. I can see hope flashing bright in her eyes. I don’t know if it’s hope for me or for her.
‘What’s that, Mum?’ I nod down at the folded paper she’s holding.
She hands me a photo. It’s creased and blurry with age, but I can see straightaway it’s her and Dad, up close in the back corner of some city bar. She’s holding the camera, her arm is stretched out to hold it, and she’s looking up into it, her eyes shining. She’s nestled in his arm, and he’s looking down at her, his eyes lowered to watch her, a slight tender smile playing on his lips.
I sit on a bench in the Place des Vosges, watching the pigeons circling, a ring of fluttering grey, wings beating against a cerulean sky.
I gaze around at the towering facades of rose-gold lining the edges of the square, at their centuries-old grandeur. Through my wavering veil of jetlag, these silent shuttered palaces swim a little in my vision.
I don’t hide my curiosity as my eyes follow the stream of passersby, clutching bags of shopping, children dawdling in clusters, commuters hurrying past without a sideways look. I strain to catch every word around me.
I look down at my feet in my new shoes. They arc to a confident point at the toes, their patent black sheen catching the late afternoon light as I stretch out my foot to appraise them. I smile to myself – it’s day three, and I’m managing this. I’ve not only bought shoes, I’ve found a market for bread and fruit and cheese – I’ve worked out where I like the coffee on the rue Saint Antoine – I’ve conquered the Métro. I sigh with satisfaction, sitting back to bask in the golden light. I could live here.
I don’t miss Tom, I don’t even care that he’s just across the Channel.
Every day of this dreamlike week I jump from one Métro station to the next, racing two steps at a time up the hot stairwells where black-hatted gypsies whip out a frenetic polka on double basses, to break out into the light. Where I pause momentarily, breathless - survey the scene, consider my possibilities - then plunge into the crowd and lose myself wandering these circular streets.
I have my map of Toulouse and in the top left corner I have written the early morning train times from Paris. There are twenty-three trains every day.
One afternoon as I hesitate on a steep street corner, a man stops to offer help, asks where I am from, and before continuing on his way, places sunflower seeds in my open palm.
‘To plant in the city,’ he explains. ‘We have a group, it’s a thing we do, to make the city beautiful!’
I smile and shrug OK, I have no idea how to garden but I’ll give it a go. Later I stoop awkwardly at a patch of dry soil outside a small nameless market near the Gare du Nord, and scrabble around to make a shallow dip amongst the weeds. I scatter the seeds in, cover them with dirt, and dust off my hands.
Twilit evenings I clatter back up five flights of steep steps to my rented room, sweat between my breastbones, seeking brief sanctuary after my day of heady journeying, to sit on my tiny balcony. I sip a cool wine and look over the darkening rooftops.
Watching the sinking sun I think soon, I’ll go, I’ll start to find him.
Then I summon up my energy again – close the door of my small oasis, my one-room flat with its mezzanine bedroom and two-cupboard kitchen - and descend back to the streets, the warmth of the day still rising off the pavement. I try out my French on students in basement bars, they try their English on me, as we compare the courses we’re doing and beam at each other in the delight of discovering our unexpected parallels. After, I sit on the riverbank to look at the lights on the other side, and then I walk and I walk and I walk.
I am walking myself into the other half of my life, the half that’s been in shadows all through my childhood. With each step, each smile, each word I’m taking shape, growing into the empty spaces. I’m the angel reassembling on the balcony.
But on the eighth day, as I wake up out of a chaotic dissolving dream, I can sense through my eyelids the sky is grey. The air is chill, and my ten day’s rental here in the rue des Tournelles is nearly up.
I get up to push the curtain aside and look out at the light drizzle falling. The receding edges of the dream - of running, then standing alone on the Esplanade watching the ships - tug at me.
Today I’ll go and book my train ticket.
In the bleached gated suburb on the outskirts of Toulouse, the woman at the door stands and looks at me, first blank, then cold. I can see as her eyes traverse me that she’s recognising him in me.
She looks like the bitch she probably always was.
‘You may come in,’ she replies finally, and moves aside grudgingly to let me into her neutral-toned, soundless house. Her English is obviously still good, better than his ever was, I imagine. She was the strong one, the best earner, the ruler of the family. The decision maker.
‘You must be Simone then?’ I ask, my voice more challenging than I intend.
She half-smiles and drops gracefully into an armchair, gesturing for me to sit opposite. ‘Yes,’ she says simply.
She doesn’t seem surprised about me, or at least she doesn’t show it, despite the fact I’ve turned up unannounced. I’ve done my detective work, located their family name in the White Pages – and guessed already that he doesn’t live here anymore, because it’s just her name listed. She’s on Facebook too, so I’ve seen their sons – men now, my half-brothers – I’ve seen dozens of friends and family – but nothing about him, no mention.
He doesn’t have a social media presence at all, as if he never existed.
She’s a silver-haired woman in a dove-grey silk dress, with a cutting gaze and glinting jewellery. The polished frames on the mantlepiece, the black Mini in the open garage, the neatly trimmed rosebushes lining the driveway of sharp clean gravel – all speak of a cultivated, cashed-up existence. There is a silent and invisible presence of staff in the temperate air. The crisp smell of Euros defines everything about this contained woman in her silk belted dress, sitting opposite me nonchalant, calm, uncaring.
She doesn’t offer me a coffee and I don’t want one; I feel too sick.
‘So, I wanted to meet my father.’ I say, into the empty air.
She shrugs, and leans forward, bringing her hands together, her shiny crimson nails pointing at me. I get a sense she’s savouring what she’s about to say.
‘So, miss – Lisette?’ She smiles coolly. ‘My ex-husband no longer resides in France.’
I nod, my face wooden.
‘So you have come so far for nothing, that is a shame! You could have telephoned me and saved yourself the journey!’ She spreads her hands wide, deprecating.
It’s my turn to shrug, as if it doesn’t matter. I’d thought if he’s not here anymore, with his ex-wife, at least he’d be somewhere else in France. My mind is thumping with a sick mixture of disappointment and wariness.
‘Do you know where he is?’ I ask her.
She tosses her hair and laughs, her eyes softening. I think she’s possibly starting to feel sorry for me, as I sit frozen on the edge of her terracotta-hued suede chair, in my new dress bought two days ago at the Galeries Lafayette - the most expensive dress I’ve ever bought. It’s a tight elegant knitted number, black at the top, emblazoned with horizontal stripes in fire-alarm colours ringing my narrow hips – as if to say nothing scares me, with my new shoes, matching bag, matching nails that took me about three attempts with my shaky clumsy hand to get right. Fuck, this has cost me thousands.
Doing myself up as my mum always wanted to, tried to for him.
‘You really don’t know, do you?’ She appraises me up and down. ‘Incredible,’ she murmurs.
‘What do you mean? No, of course I don’t know,’ I return her gaze with growing impatience.
She looks at me levelly. ‘I don’t know his address. I haven’t spoken to him for years. My sons know, they are in touch with him, they have visited him.’ She pauses. ‘However, I am not going to ask them for his address for you, and I would prefer you do not contact them.’
I know their names, so I could find them, I think, but I say nothing.
Unless they’re a bit more careful than her with their contact details. Which, being younger, they probably are.
‘Okay,’ I say slowly. ‘I won’t contact your sons, I can understand you wouldn’t want that. But – can you tell me anything about where Tristan is? I’m sure you can understand my point of view as well.’ I’ve rehearsed these lines in their reasonable tone, I’m appealing to her goodwill if there is any. I’d figured even before I knocked on her door there may not be, but this seems to be all I’ve got left.
She smiles with cool irony. ‘Melbourne.’
On the train back to Paris I can hardly hear him, I don’t know if it’s because of the volume on my phone or he’s deliberately fading out. My brother was never really into willingly talking to me.
But I’ve called him because he’s the only person I can think of who my dad could have tracked down – he’s a normal person with social media presence, unlike my mum. And I don’t give a fuck what the time is over there.
‘What? Emil, you need to speak up!’
‘Yeah, yeah OK I did get a call from him, must have been about – I don’t know, six or seven years ago? Maybe more. I told him to fuck off.’
I can’t believe what I just heard. ‘What?’
Emil seems to be talking to someone else in the background, must be Saskia, his girlfriend. I don’t have a lot of time for her, the way she sucks up to Alex, because he’s the parent with money. Saskia treats Mum like one of her social work clients, like she’s a bag lady.
Saskia seems to be telling Emil to get off the phone as it’s late. I think I hear something like, ‘This is your half-sister who usually doesn’t have anything to do with you, right?’
‘Emil!’ I shout. The other passengers in my row look at me, but not as if they’re surprised – more along the lines of Annoying tourist. Touriste ennuyeux.
‘How could you do that to Mum?’
‘Look, Lisette.’ He sounds impatient and in charge. Always the one in charge, just like his uptight dad. I press my lips tight and squeeze my hands into fists.
‘He was never any good for Mum,’ Emil continues. ‘When he phoned me, he wasn’t even sure how long he’d be back in Melbourne for! It was just another work trip – a junket – a – what was the word?’ Emil pauses. ‘Oh yeah – a mission.’ He spits the word with contempt. ‘He was probably just going to use her then piss off again.’
It dawns on me that Emil hates my dad violently.
‘So what was I meant to do?’
I say nothing.
‘He broke up Mum and my dad.’ Emil’s voice is icy.
‘Oh no way!’ I splutter. ‘If it wasn’t him, it would have been someone else!’
‘Well it wasn’t someone else, it was him. He wrecked her life, then left her high and dry, then he comes back and expects just to pick up where they left off? Like hell. Asshole. I did the right thing, I told him to fuck off back to France and let Mum get on with her life.’
‘Yeah? What life?’ Something in Emil’s self-satisfied tone gives me a gut feeling about something. ‘What did you tell him about Mum?’
Emil hesitates. ‘I had to be sure he wouldn’t bother her again.’
‘So what did you say, you fucking do-gooder, know-it all? And what makes you think you can make decisions about her life? And about my life? He’s my fucking father, did that occur to you? Did that ever occur to anyone?’
‘Oh fuck off Lisette. Stop being a drama queen.’
I hear Saskia whingeing in the background again. Probably complaining it’s time to get off the phone because it’s after ten and she needs to get up early to go and do some kind of pilates or some shit.
I close my eyes and take a deep trembling breath. ‘OK sorry, so what did you say to him?’
‘I told him she was happily remarried to a really successful rich guy and she was living in Brighton. I told him she hated his guts and her husband would kill him if he tried to go anywhere near her.’
‘Anyway’, he continues coolly, ‘Don’t blame me. Talk to Adam. Tristan went to him first. Adam rang me and told me what to say.’ And I know as I almost scream that he’s hung up, the line’s gone dead. I hold the scream, punch the red hang-up symbol and close my eyes.
Charles de Gaulle
The early morning light slants into the terminal through dirty sheets of glass. Through my smeary sunglasses my gaze is fixed on the tarmac swarming with unknown airlines, crawling like sluggish cockroaches along their thick black lines. Landing, taking off, the sun glinting sharp and metallic off their tails as they vanish into the dull haze of the European summer sky. So many.
People rush around in swirls of dark burqas and summer-blue suits. Catches of languages eddy around me and announcements echo and bounce off the walls, indecipherable in French and English. Tentative dazed-looking family groups with bulging daypacks look like Australians. I recognise them instinctively, unwillingly, and avert my eyes.
I feel tired, although I slept an exhausted deep sleep last night, my last night in Paris, in a little Algerian hotel. I’d walked for hours and spoken to no one, traversing districts where I no longer get lost. Dinner was a lonely plate of penne, with olives, and a half-carafe of pale white wine, by a window where I could look out at the street. No longer looking for my dad.
I pick up my phone and scroll to Mum.
‘Mum?’ I can’t believe she’s picked up, she usually doesn’t.
‘Lisette?’ Down the blurry line her voice is excited, lilting.
‘’I’m at the airport.’ I swallow, play with my handbag strap. I look down almost ashamed at my flight outfit – given up on the chic dresses, I’m in a stretch skirt and singlet top, I can’t be fucked anymore. I’m heading home. Wherever that is.
‘I have to board in a sec,’ I continue.
‘Oh… so… how have you been these last few days sweetheart?’
I can hear behind the buzz of the bad line the restrained hope of my mother.
‘Okay, yeah good!’ I gulp my coffee out of its polystyrene cup and move sideways on the vinyl banquette, out of the incoming sunrise. It’s going to be thirty degrees in Paris today. Weirdly, thirty feels hotter here than at home.
I want to stay.
‘So – did you take the train to Toulouse on Monday, like you planned?’ She’s trying to keep her voice light.
I heave a deep shaking breath. ‘Yes I did. But I didn’t find my dad.’ I try to laugh. ‘Oh well! At least I tried.’
Her silence is heavy.
‘I’ll tell you about it when I’m back,’ I continue. My eyes follow the tail of an Etihad jet as it glides gracefully out to the runway. Full of people returning home, going on holidays, people with no cares.
‘I’ll be home tomorrow night – about 6.30?’ I say, as she says, ‘Yes you tried!’ Our voices jangle together.
There’s a pause.
‘Well just come straight here darling.’ My mum’s voice is faraway.
I close my hot eyes in her pain and my pain. Fuck this, I will find him.
Through the window
Xavier Lefèvre is the man from the company who replies to my email. He calls me one hot blustery spring day as I’m cycling along the bay. I only hear my phone as I’d stopped to get a drink from the water fountain at Albert Park beach.
I’m drinking the metallic water, gulping it down, when I hear the song of my ringtone. I straighten up and reach for my phone out of my bag where it’s propped up in the bike basket. I’ve brought bathers and a sarong with me – optimistic that maybe this will be the first beach day for the season; a swathe of blue is widening across the sky, the bay is dotted with sails dancing on the waves.
I think maybe it’s Georgia calling from a landline at her work to say she’s coming down to meet me, but when this old guy starts talking, his accented words fumbling, I grip my phone and my heart starts to thud.
Xavier seems kind; he doesn’t ask why I’m looking for Tristan, but is eager to chat and reminisce about his former colleague. ‘Yes, I can certainly give him your details,’ he tells me. ‘And I can ask him to contact you. Are you close to the city?’
‘Yes, I live in Elwood,’ I reply.
‘That’s quite close, Tristan is in Albert Park,’ Xavier replies. ‘Where he always played soccer before, for the company!’ Xavier laughs. ‘We all did in our team, as long as we could, on Tuesday nights, till the young guys took over and pushed us out!’
‘Oh, I’m cycling along the beach in Albert Park right now!’ I exclaim. ‘It’s such a beautiful day, and I don’t have classes today, so I couldn’t resist!’
‘Along the beach?’ Xavier pauses. ‘Oh, so you are maybe very close to Tristan’s place!’
He promises to pass on my phone number and I hang up, trembling with excitement.
I don’t want to keep cycling. I lock my bike and take my things down on to the beach. It’s still too cold to get into my bikini, but I sit on the warm sand hugging my knees, and look out at the bay. When the wind whips up from the west, I turn to face the shoreline, and let my gaze wander across the road.
Where, for the first time, I see someone inside the vast front window. A slight, compact man with short grey-black hair stands motionless, his hands by his side, looking out.
I watch him pick something up off the table. He is looking down into the palm of his hand now, typing.
My phone starts to ring.