Authors: Kirstyn McDermott
For my own dear sisters,
Emmeline and Danielle,
with all my love
and absolutely no subtext.
— 1 —
Antoinette watches her sister swing the suitcase from the back seat, almost expecting that slim, white wrist to flex and snap beneath the weight.
Two Minute Passenger Drop Off Zone
, the sign beside them declares, and even this early in the morning there’s a line of cars impatient for their turn.
‘He knows how to pick his moments,’ Jacqueline mutters, smoothing her skirt as she straightens. Then, almost an afterthought: ‘Bastard.’
Antoinette smiles, or tries to, tries to force the corners of her mouth to lift despite the grief still lodged in her throat. Because if she doesn’t smile, she’s going to cry, and she’s done far too much of that already. No, she needs to keep it together. The drive back from the airport will be long and lonely enough; if the tears start again now they might never stop.
‘Ant, I’m sorry about this.’ Jacqueline pushes a stray curl back behind Antoinette’s ear. ‘If I could cancel the trip, even delay it a week or two . . .’
‘No, it’s okay, I’ll be okay.’ But it isn’t, and she won’t be.
‘Tell me,’ Jacqueline says. ‘Tell me what you need.’
What she needs? What she
is for her sister to stay right here in Melbourne. To sit with her and rub her back in slow, soothing circles. To tell her not only that everything will be fine, but exactly how it will be so, and when. Just like she always has, since forever. No matter the crisis – broken doll or skinned knee, failed exam or disastrous haircut – Jacqueline always knows how to fix it, always knows exactly what to say to make Antoinette feel better.
Except this time she’s leaving.
Off to Brisbane to mollycoddle some artist on behalf of the stupid gallery she works for – on a
for crying out loud – and god knows how long she’ll be away. Antoinette has known about it for days, of course she has, but with everything that happened last night, with Paul’s final words looping on constant rotation through her head–
And here it is again, the bitter-sharp edge of tears.
‘Well.’ Jacqueline smiles, brief and sardonic. ‘If it gets too lonely at my place, you can always go stay with our mother for a while.’
‘Yeah, there’s always that.’ Antoinette smiles too, because it really is laughable, the idea of running back home to their mother with her unvoiced I-told-you-so’s and weak herbal teas, her pity-soaked looks and the inevitable list of chores and time-sapping suggestions which would be drawn up and stuck to the fridge.
, their mother’s timeworn motto.
Keep your hands working and your mind distracted and soon you won’t even remember why you were so upset in the first place.
Self-imposed amnesia: Sally Paige’s solution to all manner of ills.
‘It’ll be okay,’ Antoinette says again. ‘I should probably start looking for some place to live, anyway.’
Jacqueline frowns. ‘Don’t feel rushed into anything; you know you’re welcome to stay as long as you need. You still have the spare key?’
Antoinette nods. ‘Don’t worry about me.’
Please worry about me.
Behind them, a car horn bleats and Jacqueline glances at her watch, sunlight glinting off classic marquisette, and she’s really sorry, she says, but she can’t miss her plane. Time for one last hug, and Antoinette holds on tight, presses her face into the thick, silk-dark swathe of her sister’s hair, not wanting to ever let go, to ever be let go. But Jacqueline’s already pulling away, walking away, navy blue trolley case nipping at her heels, and just as those huge glass doors slide open to swallow her, she turns, one hand lifting.
‘Call me if you need anything, Ant.’
I need you to stay.
A wish too impossible to voice, so instead she just waves, waves as Jacqueline strides into the airport and out of sight, waves as the driver behind her leans on his horn yet again, waves until her arm aches to be lowered.
And waving still, deep down inside where the hurt blooms boldest, as she slides into her empty car and reaches for the key left waiting in the ignition.
Please. I need someone to stay.
Jacqueline tugs her seatbelt tighter. Stares out of the window at the tarmac too far below. Her fingers dig reflexively into the armrests.
‘Are you scared of planes?’ The little boy next to her is four or five years old. There are two teeth missing from his grin. ‘I’m not scared of nothing!’
‘Really?’ Jacqueline says. ‘Not of anything?’
The woman in the aisle seat sighs and pats him on the knee. ‘Don’t be making a nuisance of yourself, Caleb. Leave the nice lady alone.’ She’s much older than Jacqueline, perhaps in her late forties. Mother or grandmother; it’s difficult to tell.
‘It’s all right,’ Jacqueline says. ‘He isn’t bothering me.’
‘You want him then?’ the woman replies, deadpan. ‘Free to good home.’
‘Oh, ah . . .’
‘Mum-mee!’ the boy wails. He tugs at the woman’s sleeve. ‘Stop it!’
‘Caleb, if you promise to sit very still and not say another word for ten whole minutes, you can have a lolly.’ The boy’s eyes light up. He starts to open his mouth but his mother shakes her head. ‘Not. Another. Word.’
He presses his lips together. Zips a pinched finger and thumb across them.
‘I take it back.’ His mother winks. ‘Free to
Jacqueline isn’t sure whether she’s supposed to laugh or not. She wishes Ant was here. Her sister knows how to make small talk. To banter easily with strangers she’ll never see again. Jacqueline can never think of the right words to say or even see a reason for saying them. Perhaps she should have asked Ant to come along. Perhaps a few days in Brisbane would have been good for her. It might have helped take her mind off that idiot, Paul. Or at least made sure she didn’t go running back to him at the first hint of an excuse.
Caleb tugs his mother’s sleeve again. She rolls her eyes. ‘What?’
‘How-do-I-know-when-is-ten-minutes?’ he whispers, running the words together in a single anxious breath.
‘Look.’ She shows him her wristwatch. ‘When that big hand is on the number seven, okay? That will be ten minutes. Now, shush.’
The boy zips his mouth again.
‘Don’t worry,’ his mother says to Jacqueline. ‘He’s a pretty good flier.’
‘It was always the thing I dreaded most about flying, being stuck near some screaming kid. Used to put my teeth on edge. Funny thing, it doesn’t seem to bother me so much, now I got one of my own.’
‘It’s fine, honestly.’ She grabs the inflight magazine from her seat pocket. Pretends to find something of interest within its glossy pages. It’s not the flying part she hates so much as the feeling of being trapped. Surrounded by people she doesn’t know how to read or relate to. It’s exhausting, the need to be always on her guard. To be constantly on show. Not for the first time, she wishes Dante had decided to go to Brisbane himself. Not that her boss would ever deign to do his own grovelling.
Better you than me, babe. Catch more flies with honey, and I don’t think my sweet arse will likely interest the dude.
The dude. Ryan Jellicoe. Dante’s latest Great Undiscovered, or near enough, with his first solo show – his first show outside of Brisbane at all – due to open in less than six weeks. Only there hasn’t been a single progress report since the contracts were signed. Not a sketch or a photograph or even a synopsis of what the artist is actually planning to put together. His phone has been off for weeks and the daily volley of emails Dante insists she send remains unanswered. And so, this rescue mission. Carrots and sticks and Jacqueline on orders to flush Ryan Jellicoe from his hidey-hole no matter what.
Get up there, Jacks. Get your face in his face and make sure those paintings are damn well done.
Jacks. She grinds her teeth on the nickname. It’s what you would call a dog, or the latest whizz-bang antibacterial home cleaning product.
Beside her, Caleb is kicking the back of the seat in front of him. Light taps, born less of malice than boredom, but his mother leans over and stills them. She frowns and shakes her head. Lifts a finger to her lips. The boy sighs loudly and crosses his arms. Puffs air into his cheeks like a bullfrog.
Jacqueline smiles, half to the boy, half to herself. She turns back to the window as the plane accelerates down the runway. They lift into the air and the outer suburbs of Melbourne fall further and further away. This far from the city, it’s all housing estates. Two-storey dollhouses cluster around fresh new cul-de-sacs. Satellite dishes mushroom on every rooftop. Matchbox cars dot the driveways.
, Ant calls them, and Jacqueline can see her point. But still. She tries to picture herself in such a world. House, husband, children – children like Caleb, still kicking his feet beside her – the whole perfect, pre-fabricated package. Rules to follow. Patterns to keep. An order to be maintained. How easy it would be to lose herself in that.
Jacqueline swallows. Closes her eyes.
And then what? People around her all day, every day. Watching with their sharp, assessing eyes. Judging what kind of a mother she was. How well-behaved the children, how well they were dressed and schooled and fed. Honestly, how long would she last before the cracks began to widen and split? How long before she–
Her stomach cramps. Pain stabs beneath her ribs.
She gasps, doubling over as much as the economy seating will allow, the taste of metal rising in the back of her throat. She’d hoped they were done with, these spasms which have plagued her for the past couple of months, but apparently not. Dry mouthed, fingers pressed to her temples, she takes slow, deep breaths, bracing herself for the familiar swell of nausea. Everything is pressing too close, stifling and claustrophobic. The roar of the plane’s engine is too loud. It’s too much to bear; any second now she will fly apart, fall apart and–
be calm be quiet be still
The voice doesn’t belong to her, isn’t anything like the voice she sometimes uses to talk to herself inside her head, but she feels like she knows it. Has always known it, right from the very first time she heard it,
it echoing up from the back of her skull. All those weeks ago, lying curled on the kitchen tiles that seemed to slope beneath her grasping hands. Nothing in her head but that voice.
be calm be quiet be still
Strong words, commanding words, and Jacqueline tries to focus on them. Tries to use them as anchors to keep her here. To keep her now. She doesn’t realise how hard she’s been chewing on the inside of her cheek until she tastes blood. At last, the pain eases and her breathing slows.
, she tells herself.
‘Are you okay?’
Caleb’s mother is leaning over, her brow creased with concern. Her son is staring at Jacqueline with wide, dark eyes. One little fist is bunched into his mouth. Saliva glistens on his skin.
Jacqueline makes herself sit up. ‘I’m fine.’ She straightens her skirt. Tucks her hair behind her ears. ‘Just a – a headache. All of a sudden.’
‘Do you need anything? Should I call someone?’
‘No, I’m fine.’ She swallows. Knots her hands together to keep them from trembling.
‘I have some Panadol in my bag,’ the woman says.
‘Thank you, but I really am fine.’ She forces herself to smile. To make it seem warm, grateful for the offer. ‘I just need to rest my eyes for a while.’
‘Mummy,’ Caleb whispers. ‘Is the lady sick?’
‘No, honey, she just needs to have a nap.’
‘Is it ten minutes yet?’
‘Oh, Caleb. Here.’ She digs into her jacket pocket. Pulls out a packet of brightly coloured jelly snakes and holds it out to her son. ‘Just one now.’ Her eyes don’t move from Jacqueline’s face. ‘You’re sure you’re okay?’
‘I’ll be fine.’ Jacqueline leans back in her seat. Even with her eyes closed she can feel the woman staring at her. Can feel the boy fidgeting in his seat as he sucks on his lolly. She tries not to move. Tries to keep her breathing even and regular, as though it’s a test she needs to pass.