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Authors: Meredith Jaffe

The Fence

BOOK: The Fence
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About
The Fence

‘
I promise you one thing, young lady. Building a fence is not going to keep the world out and won't keep your children in. Life's not that simple
.'

Gwen Hill adores Green Valley Avenue. Here she has built friendships, raised her children and nurtured a thriving garden. So when the house next door is sold, Gwen wonders how the new family will settle into this cosy community.

Francesca Desmarchelliers has high hopes for the house on Green Valley Avenue. More than a new home, it's a clean slate for Frankie, who has moved her brood in a bid to save her marriage.

To maintain her privacy and corral her wandering children, Frankie proposes a fence between the properties that would destroy Gwen's picture-perfect front yard.

To Gwen, this is an act of war.

Soon the neighbours are locked in an escalating battle about more than just council approvals, and boundaries are not the only things at stake.

To my one-man patron of the arts, without whom this story may never have eventuated, my husband Paul.

Monday 21 March

From where Gwen sits, she can see the back of Michael's head. So familiar and yet she hasn't seen Michael since his father's funeral two years ago. Now here they are again. He sits in the front pew staring at where his mother lays, a spray of white lilies on the coffin's lid. Babs hated lilies; she used to say the heavy scent aggravated her asthma. Michael should know that, Gwen certainly did.

Next to Michael sits an unfamiliar girl whose black hair fans over his shoulder. Gwen leans over and whispers in Eric's ear, ‘Is that Michael's wife?'

Eric looks up from reading the Order of Service and peers at the two dark heads, shrugging. Any opinion he might offer is silenced by the swell of music filling the crematorium. The celebrant walks down the aisle and onto the dais. It strikes Gwen that as Babs' only immediate family, Michael should also have been walking down the aisle before taking his seat on the left-hand side of the chapel. When Val's Keith died, the entire first three rows had been occupied by the gathering of family but today there is only Michael and that girl.

Fanning her face with the Order of Service, Gwen swivels her head, pretending to check for latecomers. She spots Val and her sons, Luke and Murray, sitting two rows behind. Val wears black but, being Val, her top is sequinned and she's tied a leopard-skin print scarf in a jaunty knot around her throat. Val waves, her broad smile belying the seriousness of the occasion. Val enjoys any opportunity to dress up, especially with the prospect of a free feed afterwards. Gwen smiles at her then at the boys, who confuse a half smile with a nod as if unsure of the correct etiquette for a funeral.

As the music ends, Gwen turns to face the small coffin. A fortnight has passed since she and Val visited Babs at the hospice but it seems a lifetime ago. Babs' illness was sudden, although not, as it turned out.

*

Her grandson Jack had wanted a Harry Potter party for his eighth birthday so Gwen had printed off a picture of Perkins' tent and Eric had made it out of scarves and remnants sourced from the local haberdashery store. Diane had made the cake – Harry Potter on his broomstick with a snitch hovering in the air beside him. The snitch was a cupcake and the straws of the broom were strings of liquorice. It was an astonishing cake. Diane had a real knack. Gwen's daughter-in-law, Vanessa, made a show of oohing and aahing over it the moment she saw Jack's eyes widen in delight.

‘You're so clever, Di, I don't know how you do it,' she'd gushed, reaching for her phone and snapping photos of the cake, Jack and the cake, Jack and Mia and the cake. When Diane's son, Jasper, tried to edge into shot, she shooed him away, saying, ‘Just the birthday boy, darling!' Though Gwen knew Jack wouldn't mind sharing the limelight with his cousin at all.

Tap, tap, tap on the screen and send. Jack's close-ups shared on Facebook with Vanessa's 693 friends. Vanessa recorded everything her children did in their narrow, privileged lives. All of it commented upon by Vanessa and her 234 Close Friends with their obsessive use of emojis and exclaiming capitalised praise. Gwen adored all five of her grandchildren but found being Vanessa's Facebook friend nauseating. What kind of grandmother would she be though if she unfriended her daughter-­in-law? Diane had told her she could hide Vanessa's posts but Gwen didn't dare. Any delay in acknowledging Jack's first place at the school swimming carnival or crooning over Mia's totally divine princess outfit, and Vanessa would know. She had an instinct for when her children were not the centre of their nanna's attention. Diane said there was also a Pinterest page but Gwen would be damned if she'd sign up for yet another social media platform.

‘I really must pay for the cake,' Vanessa had said, latching onto Diane's arm, holding out a fifty-dollar note.

Diane had looked at the note and the varnished nails, saying, ‘It's my present to Jack.'

Gwen shared a knowing look with Diane. Vanessa always tried too hard. Feigning an interest in gardening to Gwen and a genuine interest in dollhouses ever since she found out via a Close Friend how much her father-in-law's miniature worlds were worth. She used words like ‘bespoke' though, not ‘handmade', which from Vanessa's lips sounded suspiciously like a backhanded compliment.

In any event, Diane and Simon had stayed after Vanessa and Jonathon fled back to the Eastern suburbs. Diane's three, Molly, Jasper and baby Lisbeth, lay on their stomachs on the floor watching cartoons and devouring the Harry Potter cake Vanessa had left behind.

Pulling a bottle of champagne from Lisbeth's nappy bag, Diane waggled it at her mother. ‘We've earned this. If nothing else, for me having to put up with
Nessa
calling me
Di
all bloody afternoon.'

Gwen laughed. Whilst it was true that you can't help who you fall in love with, it might have been to Diane's advantage to keep her maiden name, which was the trend these days, wasn't it? Simon Slaughter was tolerable but Di Slaughter was, well, deathly.

Simon swooped, popping the cork as Gwen fetched the glasses and the three of them retired to the back verandah. Eric had long disappeared downstairs to his workshop. Gwen glanced at the fence. She'd invited Babs over today but, as much as she relished Babs' company, she wasn't upset when Babs declined, citing jetlag.

Diane caught her looking. ‘How is Auntie Babs, Mum?' she said, slipping off her sandals and wiggling her toes.

Gwen plucked the tip off the rosemary bush and inhaled the scent. ‘She never talks of it but she's lonely now Rohan's gone. I hope the trip to Malta did her good.' The tone of her postcard had been decidedly upbeat.

Diane slid a foot into Simon's lap and closed her eyes as he began massaging her instep. How clever she was to marry a physiotherapist, especially one who was nothing like the plumber with the leaky tap. As Simon ran a hand up Diane's calf muscle, her glass of champagne listed to one side.

Gwen turned her gaze back to the garden. ‘Not once in the past two years has Michael visited or invited her to stay with him in Singapore.'

‘Sons are harder to hold on to.' Diane exchanged one foot for the other in Simon's hands. ‘But she's always had you.'

Gwen nodded to herself. They had always been close – raising their children, enjoying Babs' elegant dinner parties or barbecues at Gwen's – but Babs had drawn in on herself after Rohan died. Gone were the days when Babs yoo-hooed as she walked up the side path invariably carrying a bottle of cold white wine and a bowl of olives she'd marinated. Now it was Gwen who popped over with eggs or a basket of fresh goodies from the garden. Any excuse to make sure Babs was looking after herself.

In response to Diane, all she said was, ‘I guess Michael has his commitments.'

‘Family is more important,' said Simon and Gwen beamed her approval. Bossy and single-minded Simon may be but he adored Diane and their three children.

Diane was still talking. ‘Apart from her Wednesday mahjong, all Auntie Babs does is work at the library and a little housework. She must be pretty lonely now.'

Those words had woken Gwen in the night, which was unusual. She prided herself on being a sound sleeper, all that gardening she supposed. After Rohan died, she gave Babs some space, believing everyone needed to grieve in private. It annoyed her that Val and the rest of Green Valley Avenue were baking cakes and descending upon Babs with pots of casseroles, invitations to bridge club and badge draw nights. Events Babs had never attended in her life and never would by Gwen's reckoning. Babs enjoyed a serene life. As if she'd change her tune just because she was a widow. Except these days her laugh came less easily, she smoked more, ate less.

These thoughts kept sleep at bay so Gwen slipped out in the cool dawn, scrunching her bare toes in the dew-laden grass, feeling restored from the ground up. Perhaps the trip to Malta had reinvigorated Babs. Gwen would go to the bottle shop this morning and pick up one of those foreign wines Babs liked and then pop in to see how the holiday had gone.

When she headed over early that evening, Gwen felt she'd surprised Babs who was standing on her front porch in a nightgown. But she quickly realised the diaphanous shift was one of those caftans Babs fancied. Like her bun, Babs' tastes hadn't changed much from the early seventies and, luckily for her, caftans were back in fashion. Understandably, as they hid a multitude of sins, and God knows, at their age their sins could do with hiding.

‘Gwennie.' Babs smiled, opening the screen door.

Gwen shifted her weight, balancing the plate of cheese balls she'd whipped up in the afternoon with the leftover rice bubbles from Jack's chocolate crackles in one hand, carrying the chilled wine in the other. ‘It's such a lovely evening, Babs. Perfect for a glass of wine and a chat.'

Babs nodded and stood aside, allowing Gwen in.

Gwen placed the plate on the kitchen bench. ‘No need for a corkscrew,' she said, as Babs reached into the second drawer. ‘It's one of those new ones with a screw cap. The young man at the bottle shop assured me all the best winemakers are using them now. Something to do with corkage.'

Babs splashed wine into two glasses. ‘It's a very nice bottle, Gwennie.'

Gwen smiled in relief. It had been worrying her all day. Babs had a far more sophisticated palate than her, just as she had a more sophisticated palate than Val who still thought cask wine and spumante were perfectly acceptable beverages. Over the years, Babs had at least managed to shake Gwen of that habit.

‘Have you been somewhere special today?'

Gwen frowned. ‘No.'

Babs waved at Gwen's torso. ‘It's just that you're all dressed up.'

Gwen blushed. Babs had a point. Their friendship had never stood on ceremony. It was a rare day she wore anything other than cropped pants and a blouse invariably stained by her endeavours in the garden. But today, fresh from planting a manure crop in one of the spare beds, she had showered and given her hair a wash. Invigorated by the cool water, she had chosen a skirt instead. Deciding the outfit needed a necklace to make it an ensemble, she had slung the beads Babs had given her last birthday around her neck. She had thought she was paying homage to their friendship but perhaps she'd overdone it. Her hand slipped to the round beads limp between her breasts and itched to tug at them until they clattered across the kitchen tiles.

Babs rescued her. ‘I meant you look lovely, silly. It's a rare day we see your pins.' She opened the sliding door and they slipped out into the humid night air.

Sydney in February was always sticky. How Gwen longed for March when it was cooler but the warm days still lingered. They used to call it an Indian Summer but these days all anyone ever talked about was global warming. Gwen paid little heed to such talk. She measured the changing seasons by what the plants told her, when the lettuces started to bolt to seed or when the leaves of the Japanese maple in Val's yard began turning from green to red. They sat now under the decorative grapevine in full leaf over the pergola. Gwen was pleased to note that her aggressive pruning last year had paid dividends. This winter she'd be able to apply a much lighter touch.

Babs popped a cheese ball in her mouth, ‘Mmm, delicious, Gwennie,' and raised her glass of wine, ‘Salute!'

‘Cheers!'

They clinked glasses. Gwen drank hers a little fast and coughed as it went down the wrong way.

Babs smiled that benign smile of hers.

‘I got your postcard. How was Malta?' Gwen rushed out, taking too big a sip to quell the coughing.

Babs shrugged and reached for her black cigarettes with the gold filters and the spice bowl she used as an ashtray. She held the flame of the lighter to the tip of the cigarette and inhaled. A cloud drifted up into the grapevine.

‘Is there much to do there?' Gwen went on, ‘I don't know anything about Malta.'

Babs cupped the silver bowl in the palm of her hand and talked of mediaeval castles and garrisons. How hospitable Rohan's brother and his wife were, the delicious food. ‘I could get used to the siestas,' she added, stubbing out her half-smoked cigarette and placing the ashtray on the ledge of the garden bed. ‘It will be a hard habit to break,' her chuckle as soft as a murmur.

She reached for another cheese ball and Gwen wondered if they were in lieu of dinner. When she'd arrived, she'd noticed the fruit bowl was empty, not even a solitary lemon illuminating its porcelain surface.

Babs added wine to their glasses though they were not yet empty. ‘You know how I took on those extra hours at the library after Rohan passed away? Malta made me realise how much it exhausts me.'

Gwen had expressed her concern about that at the time. Suggested Babs finally collate her father's notes from their days in Hong Kong instead, capture the family history. More work was never the answer. ‘Can't you cut back? You've been there forever, I'm sure they won't mind.'

Babs sighed and picked up her cigarettes. ‘But then what? Michael's busy in Singapore, there are no grandchildren to mind.'

Gwen knew she was referring to Val who often spent their coffee mornings complaining. ‘Haven't they heard of day care?' she'd say. Val had her four grandchildren three days a week. Never on a Tuesday – half price movie day – and never on a Friday because she played bridge at the club, often staying on for dinner.

‘It's not too late to learn tennis or golf. The community college have interesting courses. I thought I might learn French when I retire. I've always liked the idea of speaking a foreign language.'

‘Oh,' Babs stuttered, stumbling to her feet and upsetting her wine.

‘What?' Gwen rose too, scouting for the source of Babs' alarm.

‘It's in the house,' Babs said, stepping backwards and almost falling down the step.

Gwen peered inside and saw nothing alarming.

‘There,' Babs pointed. ‘There, under the couch.'

BOOK: The Fence
12.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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