One Summer Between Friends
Australian author Trish Morey returns with a compelling and moving story about broken friendships and the rocky road of forgiveness.
Coming home was never going to be easy …
With a failed marriage behind her, and her career dreams in tatters, Sarah returns home to Lord Howe Island to run the family store. Paradise to most, Lord Howe is the last place Sarah wants to be, trapped on an island with her two ex-best friends, Floss and Jules.
Floss has the life she always wanted: married to her high school sweetheart, Andy, with five gorgeous children. But something is missing from her marriage. And now she has a secret that threatens to tear her happy family apart, and the only person she can talk to is the woman who pushed her away.
For Jules, forgetting the past is impossible. Her four-year-old daughter is an everyday reminder of the friendships she has lost. But when a discovery turns her life upside down, she knows this is an opportunity to set things right.
This summer, can these women overcome the pain of the past and find their way back to the friendship they once had?
Looking back, you never quite knew when or where or how it began, whether with a hairline fracture that grew like a crack in an ice shelf until something snapped and broke free, or with a sudden seismic jolt that shifted the plates of friendship so hard and thrust them so far apart that there was no going back. Did it begin with the betrayal? Or was that merely the final act, and the seeds had been planted much earlier? Waiting through the decades. Biding their time. Invisible.
Trying to pinpoint the root cause was the sort of thing that a person could beat themselves up about, replaying every conversation they’d ever had, trawling through memory after memory, searching for a clue. A sign that your world and all you’d ever held dear would be blown apart by those you’d trusted the most.
But when it all came down to it, there was no point knowing. Because however and whenever it had begun, whatever you’d missed or not missed, the outcome was the same: loss. Devastation. Hurt that cut so raw and so deep that the wound would never heal and the pain would never go away.
Life went on, of course. Even if you had to read every self-help book you could get your hands on. You pored over pages about death and betrayal and forgiveness. You worked your way through all five stages of grief that the dying and bereaved were said to endure, because you knew grief and this was a kind of dying too. You worked your way through denial and anger, bargaining and depression, until you came to a wretched, uncomfortable acceptance.
This was your lot and there was no changing it.
And so you dragged yourself up, put one foot in front of the other, until one day you could even manage a smile again. To everyone else, you looked normal. But you were forever changed inside. You were harder. Stronger. And determined that nobody was ever going to mess with you again.
There was no room in this hard-won existence for something as generous as forgiveness.
No room at all.
You just knew some days were going to be special. Days when you knew that all the hard work you’d put in was going to pay off, that you’d turned a corner and your life was finally about to change for the better. Days when anticipation fizzed in your blood like the bubbles in champagne, and the air around you shimmered with expectation. Like the day Richard had proposed to her in the most magical place on earth. And like the day she’d confirmed what she’d felt deep in her bones and her belly—she was pregnant.
Precious days. All too rare days. But today, Sarah Thorpe knew, was one of those days.
A partnership at Fortescue, Robbins and Lancaster, Chartered Accountants. After more than a decade and a half of slog, and in spite of being told it would never happen, she’d made it.
At least, that’s what Gerard Fortescue had hinted ten minutes ago when she’d bumped into him coming out of the lift. ‘Ah, Sarah!’ he’d said, seeming delighted to see her as he’d shaken off his wet umbrella, his eyes darting from side to side before he’d smiled and tapped the road map–veined end of his nose. ‘Red-letter day for the firm,’ he’d whispered conspiratorially. ‘There will be celebratory drinks in the boardroom after the meeting, of that you can be sure.’ And then he’d smiled again and winked at her. He’d actually winked at her. What else could that mean?
Sarah shuffled papers on her desk and rechecked her appointment schedule, not that she registered any details. Just for once she cursed her lack of social media skills. If she’d been the type to Facebook or Twitter, she might have seized her phone and posted something short and sweet that reflected her heady mood and the anticipation that was bubbling in her veins: Just deserts, here I come! Or #TakeThatGlassCeiling! #Smashed!
But Sarah didn’t Facebook. She didn’t tweet or Snapchat. She did nothing on social media that might reflect badly on the firm or attract the adverse attention of the partners. She did nothing on social media period. She was squeaky clean and above reproach and that—and the fact she’d worked her butt off for years—was finally about to pay off. Big time.
There’d been talk of Gerard stepping back to concentrate on his directorships for the last three years. It’s what she’d focussed on to keep her sane. It was what she wanted, more than anything. The first woman to make partner in a firm filled with dinosaurs would be a red-letter day indeed. She was about to drag the company into the twenty-first century, even if it had taken the best part of two decades to do it.
God, how could she wait until this afternoon’s partners’ meeting to find out?
Sarah checked her calendar again and this time her first appointment registered. She headed for the kitchen. There was just enough time for a cup of tea before her client arrived. She dangled a chamomile and honey teabag in a mug, thinking it might work some serenity and calm into her over-excited brain before she had to turn it back to the intricacies of the recent changes in legislation governing self-managed superannuation funds. Which meant ten delicious minutes to indulge herself with thoughts of what it might mean if she was right.
Like an office with a door and a view over Sydney Harbour instead of a partitioned-off dog box in the middle of the building. A serious company car—maybe she could finally get that little Audi TT she’d been lusting after?
She looked down at the teabag she was jiggling and snorted. Who she was kidding? All the chamomile in the world wasn’t going to calm her, not now when her every career dream was about to come true. Her only regret was that her ex wasn’t around to see this.
‘No ambition,’ Richard had told her when she’d refused to follow up the job leads he’d sprinkled in front of her like fairy dust. ‘That mob will never make you partner. It’s a boys’ club. All they care about is the status quo and golf.’ And maybe he’d been right about the boys’ club and the golf, but the firm had been good to her when she’d needed it and surely they would reward her loyalty eventually? Besides, why should she have thrown away a job that was a thirteen-minute commute from their home in Turramurra? This was Sydney—a thirteen-minute commute was like working from home. If Richard didn’t like working in the same office as his wife, he could move on. Which was exactly what he’d done.
Still, it would have been nice to be able to tell him he was wrong.
‘Deep in thought?’ asked a resonant voice behind her.
Tea sloshed over the rim of the cup and splashed on her hand. ‘Oh, Dillon, hi,’ she said, switching hands and shaking her fingers.
‘Sorry,’ he said with a grin, as he fossicked in a cupboard for his mug. ‘I didn’t mean to startle you.’
She smiled back despite the sting in her fingers. Impossible not to return a grin like Dillon’s really, not when it came gift wrapped in a tall, dark and square-jawed twenty-something footballer package. No wonder all the pretty young things had sat up and taken notice when he’d joined the firm a few months back.
‘You caught me lost in the hidden delights of self-managed superannuation funds.’ Which was only a tiny white lie.
He cocked an eyebrow as he reached for a coffee capsule. ‘There are hidden delights in self-managed super funds?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘Sorry, I just made that up.’
‘Damn. And there was me about to ask for a transfer from insolvency to come play in your superannuation sand pit.’
She laughed. This day was getting better and better. She knew better than to think Dillon was flirting with her—she had something like a decade on him and he was clearly just a natural-born charmer. But right now she felt like being charmed. It had been too long since she’d felt so light-hearted. She sipped her tea. ‘So, how are you settling in to FRL then?’
He took a moment to answer, a slight frown pulling his brows together as the coffee machine hummed into life. ‘Not bad. But then, I’ve been here more than twelve months. I’m all settled in.’
‘Twelve months already? Wow. Time flies.’ She felt the phone in her pocket vibrate and glanced at the clock over the fridge. It was probably Frankie on reception advising that her client was here.
‘I’ve got to run,’ she said, emptying her mug into the sink as she pulled out her phone. ‘Catch you later.’
Except when she looked at her phone on the way back to her office, it wasn’t Frankie. It was her mother. Great. Sarah sighed and ran her hand over her hair to give her bun a reassuring squeeze. She really didn’t have time for whatever or whoever her mother wanted to snipe about right now.
‘Hi, Mum,’ she said, ‘listen, can I call you back? I’ve got a client due any minute.’
‘It’s your dad here, love,’ said a voice heavy with gravel and an innate sense of when to pause for effect. ‘Your mum’s had a fall. Broken her hip.’
Sarah stopped walking. ‘What?’
‘And so the doc ordered the air ambulance and of course I forgot my bloody phone in all the panic or I would have called up earlier. Dot said not to bother you last night, but I thought you might want to know that your mother went under the knife.’
She put her hand to her head. Good grief. At least one of her parents had the sense to let her know. ‘Thanks, Dad. Where are you?’
‘Royal Sydney. They did an MRI, or whatever it’s called, the minute we got here, and whisked her straight into surgery.’
‘I better come in.’
‘Didn’t you just say you were expecting a client?’
Frankie appeared from behind a partition, saw Sarah standing, phone in hand, and pointed towards reception. Your client, she mouthed. Sarah nodded and held up two fingers and Frankie disappeared again.
‘Look, lovey, there’s no need to rush,’ her father said. ‘You get what you need to get done there. Dot will be here when you’re ready.’ He gave a low chuckle. ‘It’s not like she’s going anywhere.’
Sarah bit her lip. Part of her was relieved she didn’t have to make an emergency dash. Another part of her was asking why this had to happen today. Trust her mother to shove an oar into what should be the best day of Sarah’s life. But it was still early and her appointment shouldn’t take any longer than an hour. There was plenty of time to get out to the hospital and back before this afternoon’s meeting. She was definitely not going to miss that.
‘Okay, I should be able to get there around lunch time. How’s she coping?’
‘Bloody unimpressed with it all, I can tell you. You know your mum doesn’t like to be slowed down.’ Sam Rooney gave a long sigh. ‘Gonna be interesting to live with for a while, she is.’
Interesting to live with. That was her father, always master of the understatement.
‘Does Danny know?’
‘No, your mother doesn’t want me to bother him either.’
Sarah rolled her eyes. How where they expected to find out their mother was in hospital? Osmosis? ‘Want me to let him know? It won’t be for another hour or so, though.’
‘Oh, love, I’ve got to get back to your mother. I’d be ever so grateful if you would.’
It was late morning by the time Sarah and the arrangement of pink, purple and white lisianthus she’d picked up from the florist made it across town to Sydney General and her mother’s room.
Dot Rooney grumbled what sounded like a welcome. ‘And after I specifically told your father not to bother you.’ She sighed and shook her head. ‘But I suppose it’s just as well you’re here now.’
Sarah put the vase containing the flowers on a shelf and leaned over the bed to kiss her mother, careful not to put any pressure on her or interfere with any of the tubes going in and out of her. ‘It’s good to see you too, Mum,’ she said, thinking that whoever said, ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same’, was bang on the money. Sam rose from the visitor’s chair in the corner to give his daughter a kiss and a hearty hug, and as she breathed in his familiar dad scent and felt his big arms squeeze her, she knew at least one of her parents was genuinely pleased to see her. She suspected in her heart that Dot was too, Sarah just wished that she was able to come out and say it. ‘And don’t blame Dad. Of course I needed to know so I could come visit you both. I haven’t seen you since you came over for Easter.’
Dot sniffed. ‘Well, whose fault is that? My own daughter always too busy to visit us so that I have to break my hip to get to see her.’
Sarah let the barb slide by. She had used the ‘too busy’ excuse a lot, especially when it involved spending extended time back on Lord Howe Island. But not without good reason. ‘So,’ she said, perching herself gingerly on the side of the bed nearest her mother’s good leg, ‘how are you feeling?’
Her mother assumed a pained expression. ‘Like I’ve been run over by a truck. The surgeon had to bolt me together with plates and pins.’
‘Ouch. How did you do it?’
‘I didn’t do it. It was that wretched rail in the shop that did it. I was coming down the stairs with a box of tomatoes and when I reached for the rail, it wasn’t there and I missed the step. And the next thing I know, I’m lying on the floor in agony and there’s tomatoes rolling every which way, and not a hope in hell that I could get myself up off the ground to pick them up.’
‘You missed the handrail?’ Sarah inserted what she knew of her mother and of the sturdy timber handrail her father had built into the story. ‘Were you in a hurry?’
Sam chuckled. ‘Have you ever known your mother to operate at anything less than warp speed?’
Dot bristled. ‘I don’t like wasting time, if that’s what you mean. But that handrail definitely needs to be fixed. It’s dangerous the way it is, Samuel Rooney.’
Sam patted his wife on the arm. ‘Don’t worry, love, I’ll have a look at the handrail. Make sure it’s a bit easier to get hold of. We can’t have people tripping down the stairs.’
‘Least of all me.’ Dot nodded, looking suitably mollified.
‘Least of all, you,’ Sam agreed.
‘Oh,’ Sarah said, remembering, ‘Danny sends his love and best wishes for a speedy recovery.’
‘Oh, he does?’ At the mention of her son, Dot’s eyes lit up. ‘Isn’t he a lovely boy, to think of his mother like that? Wasn’t that lovely, Sam?’
‘Yes, that’s nice.’
‘Just such a shame he has to live all the way down in Melbourne,’ she continued. ‘I do wish he could have got a job on the island.’
‘Not enough work for all the young ’uns, unfortunately,’ Sam said, turning his head at the sound of a trolley clattering its way down the corridor.
‘But he didn’t have to go all the way to Melbourne. If he had to work at Myer, he could have got a job right here in Sydney. At least he’d be closer then.’
‘What do the doctors say?’ Sarah asked, knowing there was nothing to be gained by pursuing that particular topic. ‘How long before you can go home?’
‘The surgeon’s been this morning, hasn’t he, Sam? Such a nice man too. He had a holiday once on Lord Howe with his family. Stayed just next door at Sullivan’s. Thinks he even popped into the shop once or twice. Imagine that! Although he didn’t remember me. I think Deirdre must have been on duty that day, don’t you, Sam?’
Sam looked at Sarah. ‘He thinks five to seven days in hospital.’
‘I was just getting to that,’ Dot said, sounding put out. ‘Who’s story is this anyway?’
‘Yours,’ he said, leaning back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest.
The trolley rattled closer, vague wafts of roast chicken crossed with tuna casserole drifting down the hallway. ‘I do hope that’s the lunch trolley,’ said Dot. ‘Soggy toast for breakfast and nothing but a biscuit for morning tea after having to fast for hours—it’s appalling service here. I could eat the leg off a chair.’
‘I don’t think our insurance covers us for that.’
‘For heaven’s sake,’ snapped Dot, ‘I wasn’t serious!’
Sarah caught her father wink at her. Her second wink of the day. She felt the bubbles rise in her blood again. Her mum was going to be okay and there was so much to look forward to. It was still a great day, despite this minor hiccup.
A few moments later a catering woman bearing a tray stopped at the door, checking the number before addressing the patient. ‘Mrs Rooney?’
‘You’ve found her,’ said Dot, lighting up like a Christmas tree. ‘How lovely of you to bring my lunch.’
‘All part of the service,’ said the woman, putting the tray on the table and carefully manoeuvring it closer.
‘I was just telling my family I could eat the leg off a chair, I’m so hungry.’
‘Well, now you won’t need to. Will you be all right from here?’
‘Yes, thank you. But please leave your name and number, because I’d love to take you home with me.’
‘Enjoy,’ the woman said with a laugh, turning to Sarah on her way out. ‘Your mother?’ Sarah nodded. ‘She’s lovely, isn’t she? I wish all the patients were so delightful.’
Sarah gave her a thin smile. ‘She has her moments.’ Unfortunately, mostly with strangers who didn’t know her.
Sam was busy uncovering plates as the trolley lady disappeared. ‘Do you want me to stay and feed you, Dorothy?’
‘Good heavens, I’m not an invalid,’ Dot said, batting her husband’s hands away. ‘No, you and Sarah go and find something for lunch. And don’t worry, I won’t run off with the surgeon while you’re gone.’
‘She actually made a joke,’ Sarah said to her father as they walked the tortuous route towards the cafeteria.
‘She still cracks the odd one,’ her father replied. ‘Mostly to her customers rather than to me.’
Sam sighed, pushing open the cafeteria door for her. The hum of conversation over the scrape of chairs and the clatter of hospital crockery and cutlery greeted them. ‘I know she can be difficult, love.’
‘I know. It would just be nice one day to have a conversation with my mother that didn’t involve her sticking a fork in my eye.’ But she managed to smile as she said it, and her dad gave a rueful smile in reply as they joined the queue. He passed her a tray.
‘So,’ Sarah said when they were seated at a table, ‘Five to seven days doesn’t sound that long for a broken hip.’
‘That’s what I thought too, but that’s just until she’s released. That bit’s not the problem,’ Sam said. ‘It’s what happens when we get your mum home.’
‘What do you mean?’
He unwrapped his ham and salad roll, muttering while he pulled off the top and fished out a couple of rogue kale leaves.
‘The occupational therapist called in shortly before you arrived. Your mum won’t be able to do half of what she normally does for a while, so she’s going to need someone to help her in the shop. Could be six months before she’s back to rights.’
‘That long? What about Deirdre? Can she do a few more hours?’
‘Well, she could, except she’s no spring chicken herself and she’s already on half time. And with a new grandie coming in a few weeks, she’s already been making noises about winding back her hours.’
‘Wow.’ Sarah peeled back the top of her yoghurt, scooped it over her fruit salad and stabbed a piece of rockmelon. ‘Well, there must be plenty of people on the island looking for work.’
‘It could be an opportunity for someone,’ she said. ‘Someone young who doesn’t want to be forced to head to the mainland for work. It’s such a drag when you have to leave.’
‘Look, Sarah, the thing is …’
She looked up from scoping out the next piece of fruit. ‘What?’
‘Would it be at all possible?’ he said. ‘I mean, I know your job is important to you, but …’
And Sarah felt a cluster of spiders crawl down her spine as she realised where this was heading. She put her fork down. ‘But what?’
‘Your mother thought that you might be able to do it. That you might have some leave saved up and you can come home a while.’
Her breath hissed in through her teeth. Her mother knew all the reasons why that would never happen. ‘Why would she possibly think that?’
‘Well, because you’re family.’
Family? This was supposed to be her day. Her day! When every career dream and aspiration she had finally came true. Instead, a lifetime of injustice boiled over inside her. She’d always been the one who was called upon when someone responsible was needed, whether to help out in the shop or to sit with Gramma or Gramps for the night, because she was more sensible and her brother was too young.
‘No,’ Sarah said, knowing she had to shut the lid on this hard and fast. ‘Sorry, Dad, but it’s not possible.’
‘You won’t at least think about it?’
‘There’s nothing to think about. I can’t do it.’ I won’t do it. ‘I can’t just walk away from my job, especially not now. You’ll have to ask Danny.’
Her father looked at the table and shook his head like a man searching for an answer. ‘That won’t work.’
‘Why not? You are going to ask him, aren’t you? Because he
happens to be family too. And he already works as a shop
assistant—he’s got the personality for it. He’d be perfect in the shop. The customers would love him.’
Her dad sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. ‘I know he’s your mum’s favourite, love, but even your mum thinks he’s about as useful as tits on a bull when it comes to anything practical.’
‘Then she should have got him to work in the shop like I had to. He could have learnt. He still could learn given he works in retail now. But instead, she expects me to do her bidding the minute she clicks her fingers.’
‘Well, you are the oldest.’
Sarah sat back in her chair. ‘For heaven’s sake, Danny’s thirty-five years old. That argument might have cut it twenty years ago when he was just a brat, but not any more.’
‘I know,’ Sam said, nodding, looking exhausted. ‘I know.’
‘Look, Dad,’ she said, because she knew her dad was the pacifier in the family, and being stuck in the middle was not always a comfortable place to be, ‘maybe someone should actually ask Danny. He’s been living away from home more than for ten years. He’s bound to have grown up a bit.’
‘One would expect so, but it’s not just serving customers, is it? It’s the stock control and accounts as well. And you’re the one with accounting qualifications—you could do it in your sleep. And, well, Dot thinks you’re the answer.’
‘You should ask him. I’m sure he could handle stock control, it’s not that big a deal. And who knows, he might actually like a six-month break on the island.’
Her father heaved another sigh as he rested his elbows on the table and held his hands out. ‘Okay, you’re right, you’re right. But don’t you see? If Danny did come, he’d expect to bring Silvio with him, and you know it would kill your mother knowing they were sharing a room.’
‘So that’s what it really came down to?’ Sarah shook her head. ‘Don’t tell me she still hasn’t given up on her dream for him to find a nice girl and get married and give her the grandchildren she’s so desperate for?’
‘Something like that.’
‘She’s in denial, that’s what she is.’
He nodded. ‘It hit her hard, when he brought Silvio home that Christmas, remember?’
Sarah remembered all right. They hadn’t had to wait for New Year’s Eve to watch the fireworks. ‘He might have warned you that he was planning on bringing Silvio.’ But that was Danny, always looking for maximum shock value. She just wished he’d stopped at fart jokes. ‘And she wonders why he chooses to live so far away.’
Sam put his salad roll, barely touched, on his tray. ‘Look, Sarah, I know it’s asking a lot, but could you at least give it some thought? You don’t have to make a decision right away. Think it over.’
She took a deep breath, wondering why they were still having this conversation. ‘It is asking a lot, now that you mention it. You’re expecting me to drop everything for six months to look after her.’
He held his hands up. ‘You wouldn’t have to look after her. You’d mostly be in the shop while she recuperates. She’ll have a lot of physio to do too, and I know that if you were there in the shop, you’d stop her from taking on too much.’
Sarah let her head drop back, noticing the chequerboard of ceiling tiles above her head, some stained brown in places from who knows what, others askew in their brackets, dirty smudges left by the hands of some tradesman who couldn’t be bothered to put them to rights or care how they looked after he was gone. It struck her that her life was a bit like those ceiling tiles: stained in places and with other bits all askew. Over the years, she’d done her best to disguise the blemishes. To appear normal. In Sydney, she could get away with it. But if she went back to the island, she’d be exposed to everything and everyone she’d ever tried to forget. All her smudges and stains in plain sight.
Today’s meeting was the chance to finally make something of herself—by herself. Could she say no to that? She stabbed at a piece of apple with her fork, trying to find some enthusiasm for it, before giving up and pushing the bowl away.
‘I’m sorry, Dad. But no.’
‘I’m so sorry, Sarah. I know you’ve got a very important job.’
‘I have.’ She licked her lips. She didn’t want to tell him about the offer she was expecting. She didn’t want to jinx herself. But she had to make her father understand that she wasn’t just being selfish and that what he was asking was impossible. ‘Dad, there’s a partnership meeting later this afternoon—and I have it on pretty good authority that I’m going to be offered a partnership in the firm. There’s no way I can simply walk away from that. It’s what I’ve been working towards for too long.’
Her father’s eyes misted over, although whether from pride or disappointment, Sarah couldn’t tell. She settled on thinking it must be a mix of both.
‘A partnership. I can see how that would change things. Congratulations, love, you’ve worked so hard for this.’
‘I have.’ No pretence. No false modesty. She’d worked her arse off for Fortescue, Robbins and Lancaster, and it was time that she was rewarded for it. ‘But you know more than anyone that it’s more than just this promotion.’
‘I know she’s not easy, so help me I do. But she’s still your mother.’
Her reluctance to go back to the island wasn’t only down to her mother, but that part was the easiest for her father to understand, and with good reason. ‘The mother who’s never forgiven me for being unable to bear her a grandchild.’
Her father reached his hands across the table to take hers, his brow furrowed, and for the first time Sarah realised there was more than tiredness infusing her father’s features. He looked older than she remembered, more crumpled.
‘I’m sorry, Sarah. She’ll get over it one day.’
‘She hasn’t shown any sign of getting over it so far.’ And while she could understand why her mother might find it hard to come to terms with something that she’d found so difficult to deal with herself, it was the implication that Sarah must have done something to have caused her infertility that stung the most. That she was somehow to blame. Always, Dot had to find someone or something to blame.
‘Ah, well,’ Sam said, clearing his throat, ‘I s’pose we’ll come up with something.’
Sarah didn’t say anything; there was nothing left to say. She looked at her watch, and then at her father’s lunch. ‘Don’t you want to finish that?’
He shook his head and glanced at her abandoned fruit salad. ‘We both seem to have lost our appetites. Come on, we better be getting back to your mum.’
‘What took you so long?’ Dot said, when Sarah and Sam returned to the room. ‘My tray got taken away ages ago.’
‘The cafeteria was busy,’ Sam said, settling back into the visitor’s chair and picking up the paper where it was folded to the crossword, fishing a pen from his top pocket. ‘It took a while to get served.’
‘Did you have something nice?’
‘Not really. A soggy roll.’
‘So what did you talk about?’
He wasn’t so quick to answer this one.
‘Oh, this and that,’ said Sarah noncommittally. ‘We had a nice catch up, didn’t we, Dad?’
‘We did. It was very pleasant.’
‘How lovely,’ Dot said, and it was clear that she thought it was anything but. It took another ten minutes of discussion about her mother’s lunch, how disappointing it had been, and how the only highlight had been the return of the lovely lunch lady and how much she’d love to visit Lord Howe Island herself, before Dot turned, exasperated, to her husband.
‘So, did you ask her?’
‘Ask me what?’ Sarah said, as she watched her father shrink further into his seat.
‘If you’ll come home and look after the shop. The therapist said it could take six months for me to be back to full mobility.’
‘Why don’t you just ask me yourself?’
‘Because if I ask you, you’ll say you’re too busy.’
‘Well, yes, you know I’m busy. Have you asked Danny if he can do it?’
‘Why would I ask Danny?’
‘Because he’s your son, and if you’re going to ask your daughter to put her life and career on hold for six months, don’t you think it’s reasonable that you should ask your son too?’
‘Here I am, lying in hospital with a broken hip, and you’re telling me what I should or should not do?’
‘Calm down, Dot. She’s not telling you what to do.’
‘You keep out of this, Samuel Rooney. If it wasn’t for that handrail, none of this would have happened.’ Dot turned to her daughter. ‘Just think, six months on the island—you can catch up with your old friends again. It’ll be lovely.’
Lovely? Sarah blinked. There were no words.
A nurse arrived to check the wound and take the patient’s vitals, and Dot Rooney found her world’s best patient smile again.
Sarah figured it was as good a time as any to escape. ‘I probably should leave you to it, I’ll see you later, Mum.’
‘I’ll see you out,’ said Sam. He walked her down the corridor towards the exit.
‘I don’t know how you can stand it sometimes, Dad. How do you put up with her?’
He shrugged. ‘I signed up for the long haul, for better, for worse. Sometimes things are better. But to be fair, she’s in pain and she’s on drugs and she’s worried about the shop. Cut her some slack. She’s not like this all the time.’
Sarah took a deep breath as the exit doors slid open, delivering them into the afternoon. It had rained earlier and now a watery sun was ramping up the humidity. She stepped to one side, well out of the way of a couple with a pram heading in, averting her eyes as she turned to her father. ‘Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, Dad.’ She reached up to kiss him on the cheek. ‘I’ll bring you both some of my famous lasagne tomorrow, save you from hospital food. How does that sound?’
Sam’s eyes lit up. ‘I’d be mad to say no to that.’ He was about to head back inside when he said, ‘Oh, and congratulations. I can’t wait to hear all about your promotion.’
Lord Howe Island
The Lord Howe Island Visitor Centre-cum-museum-cum-café-and-gift-shop was quiet today, but that was hardly surprising. June was one of the island’s quietest months and today’s gusty rain squalls had kept all but the hardiest tourists off their hire bikes and the roads and hunkered down in their accommodation. Jules Callahan didn’t mind. She loved the quiet months, when tourists preferred Bali or Thailand for their winter escape, and residents outnumbered holiday makers for once. It gave everyone on the island a breather, and a chance to go on holidays themselves, or to renew or rejig accommodation and machinery. At the museum, it gave the volunteer staff a chance to spring clean the displays and the gift shop bookshelves (even though it wasn’t yet spring), review what had and hadn’t sold last season, and think about changing things up on the café menu.
It also gave Jules a chance to think, because there was nothing like having a four-year-old with boundless energy and endless demands to make you appreciate having time to think. Counting and restacking island cookbooks (always a solid seller, since who could resist a book that contained a recipe for the banana cream pie they’d eaten at last night’s buffet?) presented the perfect opportunity. And there was plenty enough for Jules to think about. Della was growing up fast. She’d be at school next year and Jules would be able to increase her hours without having to rely on her mum for childcare so much. Maybe she could even look for a better-paying job—but she’d need to get herself some qualifications for that. There weren’t a whole lot of administration jobs on the island, so competition was fierce. Maybe she should look into doing some kind of diploma?
Funny—she’d never been ambitious. She’d grown up on the island and thought it the most perfect place in the world to spend her life. Why would you need to strive for more when you had all you wanted?
But then, she’d never wanted kids, either. Never planned on having them, and never understood how some women rushed headlong into motherhood without a second thought, like it was an inevitable part of life or like they didn’t have a choice. Jules had never felt the urge to breed. Weren’t there enough people already on this planet, let alone this island? And with all that was wrong in the world, all the predictions of doom and gloom, why would you bring children into it?
But then she’d had Della, and somewhere along the line her daughter had done what Jules had thought unimaginable. Della had turned her into a mother.
Now it was no longer enough to drift through life, satisfied with scraping though Year 12 because it was all she’d thought she’d ever need here on the island with only herself to take care of. Her daughter deserved more. Better. Especially given she was growing up without a father.
Maybe it was time she stopped thinking about it and did something about it. She’d look into administration diplomas by correspondence, after Della had gone to bed. There had to be something she could find that would earn her some extra money.
A car pulled up outside, doors slamming over the sound of the wind. Voices, and the sound of a child running. If she didn’t know better, she’d almost think—
The museum door flung open.
‘Della,’ Jules said, opening her arms for her daughter, her favourite bear wedged under her arm, to hurtle into them. ‘Hello, this is a surprise.’
Her mother appeared behind Della, pushing the door closed against the weather as she stamped her feet on the mat. Pru Callahan huffed out a breath. ‘Well, it’s certainly wild and woolly out there.’
Jules stood, her daughter’s hand in hers. ‘What brings you both here? It’s only fifteen minutes until I finish. Is something wrong?’
‘No, no, nothing’s wrong,’ said Pru, waving her concerns away. ‘It’s just that I had to go out for something. I thought that I might as well drop off Della on my way, in case you turned up and I wasn’t there.’
Jules eyes narrowed, her senses prickling. ‘What did you suddenly have to go out for in this weather?’
‘Onions,’ her mother said. ‘I was short on onions.’ Her lips pursed tight.
‘And you couldn’t have just called me to pick some up on the way?’
Pru smiled too brightly. ‘I didn’t want to bother you, dear. And I didn’t think you’d mind me dropping Della off here.’
‘Yeah,’ said Jules, ‘it’s so inconvenient and all, living—what? Seven hundred metres apart?’
‘Exactly. So now you don’t have to bother. I knew you wouldn’t mind.’ Pru leant down to give her granddaughter a kiss. ‘I’ll see you tomorrow, Della. Be good for your mummy.’
‘I will, Nana,’ Della said, winding her thin arms around her grandmother’s neck for a squeeze. Then she asked if she could go and see Horny, and darted off once she had her mother’s approval to see her favourite exhibit. The dramatic bones of the long extinct armoured turtle, with its horny skull and spiked tail, were captured as if in mid growl.
‘You shouldn’t let her call it that,’ said Pru once Della was out of earshot.
‘Why not? It’s got horns. Besides, Della gave it that name.’
Her mother’s lips tightened into a thin line. ‘Well, I’ll be off then.’
‘To fetch your onions.’
Pru gave a weak smile and turned. Jules watched her go. Onions, my arse, she thought. She didn’t believe it for a second.