Authors: Cate Kendall
âWell, that's fine,' Gemma said quickly, although inwardly quite aghast there were still people on the planet who were not online. âBut why a printer? Why aren't you doing an e-vite? You don't personally need to be online to invite everyone. I'm happy to volunteer to do that. It takes a fraction of the time, money and again resources.'
Dame Frances intervened. She removed her spectacles and spoke to Gemma as though she were a little slow. âGemma, dear, I have been running this committee for fifty years. During the past five years there has never, and I repeat,
, been a child picked up off the streets after dark recorded by police, thanks to the safety nets at UP-Kids that are, need I remind you, paid for by us.
âOur income has increased by ninety per cent in the last seven years. I think I know what I'm doing.'
âOh, yes, of course, Dame Frances, please don't get me wrong â you're the best. It's just that there is so much technology at our disposal that could help you even further, that could make your message louder, your income greater.'
Dame Frances considered Gemma for a few more seconds. She put her glasses back on and picked up her heavy Mont Blanc pen. âJulian, I need you to sort out everyone's schedules for a working bee six weeks prior to the event for hand-addressing of the envelopes. Fountain pens mandatory.'
Gemma's jaw dropped â then clenched. Rather than feeling dejected and discarded, her typical fighting spirit welled deep within. This was a very good cause, crucial to the Melbourne kids who might fall through the cracks, and damned if she was going to let this group of old dinosaurs take it with them to extinction.
âHellooo?' Stephen's baritone bounced off the walls of the house. He flicked on the light as he closed the garage door. Dropping his briefcase onto the floor, he made his way down the corridor, loosening his tie and intermittently repeating his greeting. He knew that Gemma wouldn't be home till late, which is why the guys were coming over for a card night, but he'd expected Tyler would be home. Stephen was usually home much earlier than this but had stopped for a drink at the pub with colleagues.
The mess in the kitchen suggested Tyler had been at home at some point. The cereal box was spilled over, the milk carton was warm, and a half-empty bowl sat on the bench. He opened the fridge. The lasagne Gemma had made for dinner sat on the middle shelf untouched. How hard was it to zap a quick dinner for himself? âNo wonder he's so surly,' Stephen muttered to himself, âhe lives on a diet of sugar.'
Stephen placed the bowl next to the sink, put the cereal box in the cupboard and the milk back in the fridge and wiped the kitchen bench. He went over to the bin to dispose of the crumbs. As he turned back to the sink to rinse out the cloth, the display shelves above the bench caught his eye. It was a general pile of untouched inessentials that kitchens tend to clutter: rarely referred-to cookbooks, old take-out menus, a kitsch biscuit jar. The shelf above it displayed a hodgepodge of ceramics and glassware. At first glance it was a visual disaster of clunky, tacky junk. But Stephen realised he'd never actually looked closely at the shelf. It was like a little museum of the Bristol family. He stretched to pick up the piece at the back. It was a mosaic picture frame that Gemma had helped Tyler make when he was ten, from the Bunnikins plate he'd so loved as a child and then accidentally dropped and smashed. A photo of the three of them at Tyler's eighth birthday party was inside the frame. In the picture Stephen's arm wrapped around the back of his son's neck and loosely rested on his wife's shoulder. She was so thin in the picture. She was slim now, but in the photo she looked almost skeletal. He remembered the time. He had been in-between jobs and she was fighting desperately for a promotion. The stress had taken its toll.
It was about that time when things really started to go bad between them. He remembered Gemma yelling that he was lazy, not trying hard enough to find a new job. But it wasn't that he was lazy; she was on such a great salary package that there seemed no point in him working twelve-hour days as well. It was good for the boy too. He and Tyler had spent some brilliant days together that summer, real male-bonding stuff.
He put the photo down and picked up the cheap glass vase next to it. Why would the aesthetically sensitive Gemma keep such a piece of shit? He plucked a folded note from inside it.
I luv my mum, luv from Tyler.
Of course. A Mother's Day present. Judging from the handwriting, he must have been about eight. It might have been the year when Stephen arranged for the three of them to have a helicopter ride over the city. Tyler had been beside himself with excitement.
Stephen smiled to himself as he remembered the grateful look Gemma had given him as she saw the thrill on her little boy's face. The earphones had been so big on that little head. Stephen carefully put the vase back. As he slid it along the shelf, something stopped its movement. His hand patted the shelf. It was a piece of paper folded in four. He opened it up. A letter from Tyler.
Dear Mum and Dad,
I am so so so so so so sorry that I wos vary nawty tonite. I will not eva thro my ball inside eva again espeshally when you sed for me not too. I will by you a new lamp with my poket munny. Plis don't get a divaws. I wont do it agen.
Tyler Bristol aged 6 and a kwarter.
The tears pricked like acid behind Stephen's eyes. What in the hell kind of childhood have we put this kid through? Stephen had thought the marriage problems had only been serious recently but clearly they'd been in trouble as far back as when Tyler was six. Maybe the bloody counselling session that Gemma had arranged for tomorrow might be a good thing.
He put the letter back where he'd found it and walked down the hall. He called up the stairs. No response. That meant nothing, Stephen thought as he climbed.
There was no light coming from Tyler's closed bedroom door, again, meaningless. He knocked.
âWhat?' came the muffled reply.
âCan I come in?'
Stephen opened the door and shook his head at the chaos in the room. Piles of clothes, towels and comic books dotted the floor. Tyler's desk, a mountain of books, papers and notepads, was a paper avalanche waiting to happen. The bedclothes were in tight knots, the blanket jammed down the side and a pungent smell of rotten lunches and BO hung in the air.
But that wasn't the worst bit. Dark, violent imagery covered the walls: medieval beasts bared their teeth; tattooed and pierced musicians scowled down at him; the symbols of the dark arts were unnerving. All fond memories of the struggling six-year-old went out the window. That kid didn't exist anymore. ThisÂ .Â .Â . thisÂ .Â .Â . thisÂ .Â .Â . creature had taken him away.
Stephen punched the wall in frustration.
âTyler, will you just have a look at the state of this room?' He hated the fact that he sounded so damn dad-like.
Tyler, sitting on the bed, with his back to the door, rolled his eyes and went back to staring out of the window.
âIt's just take, take, take with you.'
âOh, what-ev-ah,' Tyler said. âJust back off, will you, Dad?'
Stephen took a deep breath and tried a different approach.
âMaaate,' he tried again, âI know you need your space and all that, but seriously you need to pick up some of the filthy socks and jocks â man, the smell is rank.'
Tyler just stared at him blankly and idly picked at a zit on his chin.
Stephen wanted to slap him, hard. He clenched his hands at his sides and had one last try at communicating with his only child. He wished Gemma was here; she seemed to do better at this than him, but as usual she was off at some work thing, and in a few days she was flying to New York again, leaving him alone with this teenage misery. It was a never-ending thankless task being a parent. This morning for instance, he'd made the boy porridge, which Tyler just ignored. He'd tried to jolly him into a smile with his impression of Monty Python's Silly Walk sketch, again nothing. He was just a sack of sulks. It was draining being around him. Which made Stephen react in kind.
He dragged a pile of clothes and an empty pizza box off the armchair and sat down.
âMind if I sit?' he said.
âFree country,' his son snarled from the bed.
Stephen sat and considered the black-haired, slump-shouldered figure of his son. If Tyler would only just try a bit harder at school, make a bit of an effort around the house, maybe he'd find life less challenging. He should play a sport; that would fix him, Stephen thought as he looked around at the macabre posters on Tyler's walls. All he ever did was stay in this putrid room or roam the streets with that Mathew Gillespie. He shuddered; he was so glad to escape that graffiti meeting with the vice-principal. He'd gone sailing but had told Gemma he'd had a meeting. The last thing he'd needed was that self-satisfied Mrs Carruthers to look down her nose at him and bang on about how useless his son was. Like he needed to be told.
âSo, Tyler, what's going on, dude?' A sharp glance warned him to quit the feeble attempt at cool talk. âWhat's happening? Anything much? How's school?'
âStudy? Guitar? Xbox? Anything not fine? Anything I can help you with? How about, I don't know, everything? How's everything?' He heard himself getting sarcastic and terse but he couldn't help it. He wanted to smack the sulkiness from the boy's face. But he didn't, he was determined to keep his patience. His hands clasped, his forearms rested on his open knees. Tyler answered his last question.
Stephen leaped to his feet, red-faced with anger. âWhy you littleÂ .Â .Â .' he shouted.
Tyler looked up with slow eyes, an almost imperceptible smile creeping over his face showing how pleased he was at earning such a reaction.
Damn, he'd been got. Stephen sat back down, rubbed his head in his hands. His hands remained sheltering his face as if he could hide from this horrible, ungrateful fruit of his loins. He felt tears of frustration prick. How stupid. He brushed them away.
He felt Tyler's eyes on him. He looked up. Tyler had moved his body around facing his. His head was tilted, as if curious, as if Stephen's pain was an interesting scientific experiment. Stephen sat, not daring to say a word, not daring to breathe, to scare what was a precious sign of engagement.
âDad,' Tyler eventually said, âwhat was it like for you? School, I mean.'
Hallelujah, the kid was showing interest. So Tyler wanted to hear all about his old man and what a legend he was at school. Maybe it's a motivational opportunity; maybe when he finds out how his dad was the hero of the soccer field, tennis court and swimming pool, he might have something to look up to.
Stephen put his locked hands behind his head, stretched out his legs and nodded slowly as the fond memories came flooding back. He told Tyler about the time he kicked the winning goal in the footy championship, about skiving off and not getting caught, about all the cruel and clever ways he and his mates made life miserable for the nerds. His words trailed off as he noticed Tyler's hooded eyes just staring at him. Not responding. This wasn't working at all. Tyler needed to know that his dad suffered too. But Stephen hadn't. Well, not too much. It would have killed him to tell his own son that he got picked on relentlessly by the gang of kids from the year above him. But maybe it would be a bonding moment? It was just so hard to relive it, to admit it to his son. He didn't know what to do.
âBut there were some tough times too, I suppose,' he eventually said. Then Stephen added, âSchool pretty much sucks.'
âIt sure does,' the boy replied and turned back to the window, leaving Stephen in no doubt the conversation was over. He sighed. He desperately wanted to pat that long bony back but was terrified Tyler would flinch away. He picked up a pile of clothes from the floor, dumped it in the hamper and left the room, closing the door behind him.
The next afternoon Stephen pulled his BMW into the car park at the back of the renovated house. He was thankful that Gemma had chosen a counsellor in an area where he'd be unlikely to run into anybody he knew.
He checked his BlackBerry. He was a few minutes late. He breathed deeply and rested his head on the seat back. They'd tried this once a few years ago. It had been a massive failure with the session resulting in accusations and he-saids, she-saids. The counsellor had been a pathetic curly-haired mouse of a woman who proved useless at guiding the meeting. Nothing had been resolved. Of course that was probably because neither Gemma nor Stephen had been interested in continuing with the recommended ten sessions.
He locked his car and made his way to the front door. At least this time Gemma had booked a bloke. He would be more likely to see things from Stephen's point of view.
The receptionist directed him down the corridor to the last door. What would he say? he pondered as he approached the door. How would he present himself, make himself heard? He was really, really sick of this relationship. He hated the nastiness, the bickering, the lack of love. He'd loved her once. But he honestly didn't think he did anymore. But was that any reason to break up? Probably, he thought. Why else do people break up? He didn't want to delve into all the whys and wherefores. He was a guy; he just wanted the quick fix, the solution. He sighed. The only foreseeable solution probably was divorce, but that just sounded like it was going to be a very difficult, long, drawn-out option and quite frankly, he couldn't be bothered.
He knocked and entered when invited. Gemma was already sitting in the room flipping through her iPhone. She didn't look up.
A very young, pink-cheeked man stood up from one of the trio of club chairs and extended his hand.
âRalph Piccolo,' he said. His grip was soft and moist.
âWell, I should hope so,' Ralph said with a chuckle, âor we're all in the wrong place.'
Stephen sighed and sat next to Gemma. âHi,' he said.
âHi,' she said, pleasantly enough, turned off her phone and dropped it in her handbag.
âLet's begin, shall we?' Ralph started and shuffled his notes.
Oh, God, Stephen thought, he's nervous. How long has he been doing this for? Who in the hell has Gemma dug up this time?
âI have a reasonably unorthodox take on marriage counselling,' Ralph began. âI don't find it's helpful to rake over the coals of a relationship and dredge up old resentments.'
Good start, Stephen thought.
âI think our only option is to develop coping mechanisms for who we are today. For where we want to go.'
Oh, no, he's not going to talk âwe' the whole time, is he? As though there are three of us in this situation. Stephen wondered at what point he could pull the pin and get the hell out of here. This wasn't going to work.
âSo, having said that, where are we right now, today? Stephen, do you mind if we honour the tradition of ladies first?'
The man was a Victorian dandy stuck in an eighteen-year-old's body.
âNot at all, by all means,' Stephen said and turned to listen to what Gemma would say.
Gemma sighed and threw back her head as if pulling herself together. Stephen remembered when he couldn't resist kissing that long neck of hers. He couldn't imagine doing that ever again.
âI think we're at a crossroads, where a decision needs to be made. I don't see this marriage continuing, but I don't want to break up the family because our son Tyler is sixteen and going through a pretty rough time at school at the moment.'
âStephen?' Ralph gestured towards him.
âWell, that seems a bit ruthless really, to reduce our marriage to just a business decision or something. I don't think Gemma's really ever given her full self to this partnership; she's always been so busy at work, and I think that's why Tyler and I feel so unloved and unappreciated.'
Gemma bristled. âStephen, can you please not bring Tyler into this? This is about us.'
âHey, you mentioned him first. You're the one who brought him up.'
Ralph mediated, âOf course any children from the union are going to be a crucial element to this process, but let's really aim for not allocating blame at this point. Just our feelings about the current position.'
âAs I was saying, Ralph,' Stephen continued. He really needed to keep it together and not cause a scene. He didn't want to look like the unstable one here. He'd let Gemma take on that role. âGemma is never around. She's always at work or at some work function and even when we are together she has little interest in me.'
âOh, for God's sake, Stephen, grow up. Listen to yourself.' Gemma's voice was shrill.
Ralph patted his hand in Gemma's direction. âPlease go on, Stephen.'
âI just sit at home waiting for Gemma to come in, wondering where she is, what she's doing.'
Gemma's mouth dropped open. âThat's rubbish, Stephen, and you know it. You have your sailing, your golf, not to mention all your so-called crucial client dinners. The only times you're at home are when you're slipping out of work early or sleeping off a midweek hangover.'
âOkay,' Ralph said, âlet's try a different tack. Let's remember a time when we really loved being with each other. How we felt then.'
!' both Gemma and Stephen said in unison to Ralph then looked with surprise at each other. Stephen grinned. The man's speaking style was obviously giving his wife the shits too.
âOh, right, sorry,' Ralph stuttered, reddening slightly. âGemma, your happy times with Stephen, if you please?'
She seemed resigned. Stephen sat forward, interested in what she was going to say. âWell, there was a Mother's Day when Stephen took us up in a helicopter. Tyler loved it. He must have been eight or nine.'
Stephen looked at her in surprise; that's exactly what he had been thinking about last night.
âGood, and you, Stephen?'
âFor me, it was when we were both at uni and making love like demons all the time. But it wasn't about the sex; it was about this adoration between the two of us. I would have done anything for her, and I knew without a doubt that I was the priority in her life.' He stared at his hands while Gemma shifted uncomfortably in her seat and avoided looking at him.
âSo how do we, er, I mean you, think you can rekindle those moments? Stephen, do you think you could organise a helicopter again? And, Gemma, what about a little bit more sex?' Ralph rubbed his hands together as if he'd just had a mind-blowing epiphany. âI really think this is the ticket: to turn back the clock and rekindle your passion for each other by repeating past successes.'
Stephen and Gemma both looked at the counsellor open-mouthed then looked at each other. Gemma raised her eyebrows. From a psychic connection that can only develop after years of living together the couple stood as one. They each looked at their own watches, began muttering excuses about client meetings and conference calls.
Ralph looked up at them beseechingly. âWait, don't go. We've still got most of the session left and I think we're on the verge of a breakthrough here.'
The couple ignored him as they left the room. They walked in silence to the car park where they looked at each other again and burst out laughing. When they eventually stopped, they stood smiling at one another. âOh dear, poor Ralph,' Gemma said. âI am so sorry, the guy I'd booked cancelled at the last minute and this yo-yo was forced to step in. I should have just said no.'
âWhat a doofus,' Stephen said, shaking his head. He looked at his wife. He knew she didn't like him very much. But it didn't bother him. There was simply no emotion between them except for a little kernel of hatred that he was worried might blossom further and destroy what friendship they had left. The kind of friendship that lay in the moment they had just shared with the hapless Ralph. Can friends be married?
âCan friends be married, do you think?' Gemma asked him.
He looked only half-surprised that she'd read his mind.
âI don't know, Gem. I honestly don't know.'
They stood together in silence for a little longer, leaning on his car, and looked at the tops of the conifer hedge over the back fence of the car park. âOkay, well, I've got to beÂ .Â .Â .' she started.
âYeah, same here,' he said. And they got into their separate cars and drove off in different directions.