Three women, three secrets, one life-changing journey. From bestselling, ABIA award-winning author Rachael Johns comes an engrossing and wise novel about ambition, choices and what it means to be a woman.
Alice has always been a trailblazer as a scientist, activist, and mother. She knew her choices would involve sacrifices, but now, on the eve of her eightieth birthday, she’s beginning to wonder if she’s sacrificed too much.
Alice’s daughter Sappho rebelled against her unconventional upbringing, choosing to marry young and embrace life as a homemaker, but her status as a domestic goddess has recently taken a surprising turn.
Ged has always been the peacemaker between her grandmother and mother. A tenacious journalist, she knows what she wants in life and love, yet when everything in her world starts falling apart, she begins to question whether she really knows anyone at all.
At a crossroads in each of their lives, Alice, Sappho and Ged embark on a celebratory trip together, but instead of bringing them closer, the holiday sparks life-changing consequences and lifts the lid on a fifty-year secret.
Can Ged rescue her family if their story is built on a betrayal?
‘Alice Louise Abbott, you are the girl of my dreams, the love of my life, you light up my heart like the sun lights the sky. Please, will you do me the greatest honour of becoming my wife?’
Oh God. Alice’s heart shook as she stared down into the dark eyes of the gorgeous Henry French. Any other girl would be jumping at the chance to marry him. Henry, who’d been courting her for almost twelve months, was without a doubt the best person on the planet. She loved everything about him—from his cheeky smile to his warm heart, not to mention the way he looked when he got all dolled up in his swish grey suit. Within moments of making Henry’s acquaintance at the birthday party of her best friend’s brother, Alice had fallen head over heels.
But Alice wasn’t the marrying kind. The way she saw it, marriage benefited men way more than it did women and, for this reason, she didn’t think she’d ever enter into such a contract. And she’d thought Henry knew this about her. She’d thought he understood and respected her stance.
So why the hell was he down on bended knee at the end of St Kilda Pier on this beautiful summer’s night that had been perfect in practically every way? They’d had a delicious dinner at Leo’s Spaghetti Bar and were enjoying a lovely stroll before heading back to his place for a ‘nightcap’. Or so she’d thought.
She laughed as if she thought he were joking, when in her heart of hearts she knew he was not. ‘Henry! Get up. You’ll ruin your trousers and people are looking at us.’
Henry didn’t make a move to stand. Instead, he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small, black velvet box. ‘I don’t care who looks at us—I only care about you and me. I’ve been offered a big promotion at work and the new role is in Geelong.’
‘Geelong?’ she whispered, feeling as if she’d been punched in the gut. Still smiling, he nodded. ‘And I want you to come with me. I want you to come as my wife. So … will you marry me?’
He opened the box and a stunning square-cut diamond glistened up at her, almost winking in the moonlight. Alice couldn’t deny its beauty, and for a moment she tried to imagine what being married to Henry French would be like, but all she felt was dread.
Maybe in a couple of years or if his proposal involved staying in Melbourne, she might have relented, but right now she needed to establish her career. And while she was happy for Henry’s promotion, he didn’t seem to have considered her work at all. Geelong might only be a few hours away but it felt like the ends of the earth. No way would she be able to commute there on a daily basis. She’d finally secured a role in the labs at the university, but she had ambitions far bigger than that.
A voice from deep inside told her that if she said ‘no’ she could kiss Henry French goodbye. That thought was almost too awful to bear, but even worse would be giving up her dreams for a man.
‘You know I can’t,’ she whispered as Henry gazed up at her.
His face fell.
Had he really expected any different ending to this uninvited, unanticipated, undesired proposal?
Still, her heart squeezed and twisted at the tortured look on her beloved’s face.
‘I’m sorry, Henry.’ Alice’s own voice choked. ‘You know I love you, I’ll always love you, but I can’t marry you. Congratulations on the promotion. I’ll support you, and come visit as much as I can. I’d move in with you in a second if you were staying in Melbourne, but I can’t move to Geelong. My work is here.’
But Henry didn’t hear anything about her work. ‘Move in with me?’ he scoffed as he jumped to his feet, his cheeks turning crimson as he snapped the box shut and shoved it back in his pocket. ‘Your head is stuck in the clouds if you think that would be possible. I don’t know what fantasy world you’re living in, but if I want to be a respectable businessman, I need a wife, not a floozy!’
‘F-f-floozy?’ Alice spluttered, unable to believe the words coming out of his mouth. How dare he!
‘I’m sorry, Alice. I didn’t mean …’ His face a picture of distress, he reached out to grab her, but she stepped back.
The damage was done. She’d seen the real Henry—a Henry she’d dared to believe didn’t exist. But he was just like every other man. Just like her father. The fact he genuinely thought she’d be overjoyed by such a romantic proposal only showed how little he really knew her. And she him. She held up her hand and shook her head, unable to speak. Tears threatened at the back of her throat.
‘I didn’t mean that. You’re not a floozy,’ he said, his tone desperate, pleading. ‘But can’t you see that you’re being unfair? I love you and I want to be with you, but the bank doesn’t take kindly to unmarried couples living together, and long-distance relationships never work.’
Alice raised her eyebrows, unable to believe her ears. She didn’t give a damn about the opinion of a bunch of stuffy bankers.
‘And what about children?’ he went on. ‘You can’t believe it’s okay to bring them into the world out of wedlock?’
To be honest, she hadn’t given much thought to children—possibly she didn’t want them, definitely she didn’t want them in the near future. There were other things more pressing, more important for her to dedicate her time and energy to. As much as she loved Henry, accepting his proposal, becoming his wife, would mean turning her back on everything she believed important.
‘I’m sorry, Henry,’ she said, gulping back her tears, ‘but I just can’t.’
And that was the last time Alice Abbott saw Henry French for over fifty years.
‘Carly and I are thinking about getting back together.’
What? Christos could not be serious! I almost gagged on my prosecco as I yanked the sheets over my bare chest and searched his flushed face. Was this some kind of sick joke? After almost a year together, I was comfortable, confident, in our relationship. But my boyfriend didn’t look like he was joking. Although his eyes refused to meet mine, the serious expression on his face turned my insides to ice.
But hang on, he’d only said ‘think’.
‘What do you mean you think you’re getting back together? Are you? Or are you not?’
He slowly raised his head and when his gaze met mine his eyes were watery. No. Dread poured into my stomach and slithered up my chest like a snake working its way up my oesophagus.
‘I’m so sorry, Ged. I love you, but first and foremost I’m a dad, and things haven’t been that great for the kids lately. They’re really struggling with our living situation and Carly and I have been wondering if the best thing for them is if we try to make a go of things again.’
Make a go of things? Again?
He made it sound so casual, so easy, but they were divorced, which I’d thought was final. I couldn’t believe my ears. Surely in a second he’d pull me back into his arms and tell me he was pulling my leg.
But there was no laughter. Only a man who thirty seconds ago I thought I knew better than anyone else in the world. A man who, despite his complicated living situation, I believed only had eyes for me.
‘Oh my God. You’re serious?’
‘Nothing’s set in stone yet—we’re just considering our options. But I didn’t want to keep you in the dark. I’m sorry.’
‘Sorry?’ I’d left work early for this!
It was Christos’s week with his kids, so we’d arranged a Thursday afternoon rendezvous at a fancy city hotel around the corner from our office and I’d been looking forward to it all day.
But suddenly I felt sick, dirty, like some kind of harlot.
‘Does this mean we’re breaking up?’ I hated the way my voice cracked. ‘You’re choosing your kids and your ex-wife over me?’
‘Ged, please. It’s not like that.’
‘But you are considering getting back together with Carly?’
He confirmed my worst fear with another slow nod.
‘I can’t believe you still came here, that you let us …’ I couldn’t bring myself to say the words as I tried to swallow away the pain that suddenly burned in my chest. ‘Why couldn’t you have told me in a text message like a normal bloody person? Or at least in a cafe where I could have thrown a hot drink over you?’
We both eyed the half-flute of prosecco still in my hand but no matter how mortifying the situation, no way was I wasting good alcohol on Christos. I poured it down my throat instead, threw back the sheet and leapt from the bed.
I snatched up my tangled black lace knickers and tailored navy pants and yanked them apart. I couldn’t put them on fast enough. My top had landed on the plush velvet armchair and my heels were near the door but where the hell was my bra?
‘Ged. Baby. Please. Don’t be like this.’
Holding my silk blouse against my bare breasts, I glared at him. ‘How the hell do you expect me to be?’
Oh Lord, my eyeballs prickled painfully but I refused to cry in front of Christos. To hell with the bra. It had been a gift from him anyway.
I tugged the blouse over my head, grabbed my handbag and raced out the door. Half-walking, half-running and occasionally hopping, my hands shook as I tried shoving my feet into my shoes without stopping. God, how far was the lift? The long corridor stretched out in front of me in a tear-blurred tunnel and I hauled in a noisy, snot-filled breath. A guy from housekeeping glanced up, presumably to smile, but took one look at me and retreated into the room he was attending to.
At the elevator, I stabbed my finger so hard at the down button that it hurt. I winced but the pain had nothing on the ache in my heart. How could Christos do this? He didn’t love Carly—not in the way he loved me.
I glanced over my shoulder, half-expecting to see him running after me, ready to tell me he’d made a mistake. But all I saw was the cleaning man venturing back into the corridor.
Maybe I should go back and talk to him? Make him see sense.
My grandmother’s voice rang out loud and clear in my head. You do not need a man to give you value. Certainly not one who could treat you with such disrespect.
And, no matter how much I loved Christos, what he’d just done hadn’t made me feel respected in the slightest. I wasn’t about to beg. I was furious at him for making me even consider it.
The lift pinged and the doors opened to reveal it was empty. I rushed inside and scrutinised my reflection in the mirrored walls. Mascara streaked down my bright red cheeks like some ghastly painting; my hair had taken the term ‘bird’s nest’ to a whole other level and my nipples were clearly visible through my crumpled blouse. No chance I could slink back to the office looking like this.
I emerged into the hotel lobby, feeling as if everyone’s eyes were on me, and rushed out onto Little Collins Street, where I dug my phone out of my handbag. I couldn’t call Darren, my boss, because I wasn’t sure I could talk without crying, and overwrought female wasn’t the persona I wanted to give off in the office—especially not when I was vying for a promotion against two other capable colleagues.
I started tapping out a message instead: Sorry. Something’s come up. Family emergency. I need to take the rest of the day off. Will explain la
In the nick of time I realised the error of my ways: Won’t be back in the office today as I just had a lead on a story—but I was interrupted by the buzzing of my phone.
I grimaced as the word ‘Mum’ flashed up at me. I didn’t feel like talking to anyone right now, least of all my mother, who would immediately pick something off in my voice and start an interrogation. I pressed the little icon that would autoreply that I was in a meeting (which she’d believe as she was always berating me for working too hard) and then finished texting my boss.
I’d barely pressed send when a message from Mum popped up—since when had she got so speedy at thumb typing? Only two years ago she didn’t even have a mobile and now, not only did she have a smartphone, but also an Instagram account, Snapchat and a YouTube channel, but that’s a whole other story. And possibly my fault, since I was the one who’d dragged her into the modern age and got her on Facebook so she could see all the photos my sister-in-law posted of her grandbabies.
Don’t forget, you’re picking Gralice up for her birthday dinner tonight. And wear something nice—I’m filming the whole thing. She ended with a little emoji of a movie camera.
My heart slammed to a halt. Could this day get any worse?
I adored Gralice—my Grandma Alice—and wanted to celebrate her eightieth birthday, just not tonight. Not when all my family would be there and I’d have to pretend everything was okay, or admit it wasn’t and subject myself to their sympathy. I wanted to be strong, but one kind word and I was likely to fall apart. An image of me sobbing on the sofa between Granddad Philip and Granddad Craig landed in my head. That probably wasn’t something Mum wanted on her YouTube channel.
And wear something nice?
The audacity! I’d once worked in fashion mags for goodness’ sake.
I stared at the screen as I headed towards my tram stop, trying to work out how to respond to my mother, when suddenly I was falling. My hands shot out to break my fall and my phone catapulted out of my grip even before I worked out what had happened. Two seconds later I heard the crunch of whatever iPhones are made of against the bitumen as a car drove over it.
No. My whole life was in that device—my emails, my appointments, my banking, all my photos of Christos. My heart squeezed. And hang on, was that blood I could taste on my lip? Dirt in my mouth? Pain throbbing in my ankle?
Apparently, this day could get worse.
‘Are you okay?’ sounded an elderly male voice.
I raised my head enough to see not only was there indeed an elderly gentleman peering down at me, but a small crowd had gathered around us.
‘Shall I call an ambulance?’ someone asked.
‘I’ve got a first aid kit in my bag,’ announced another.
‘No. No. I’m fine.’ I felt as if I’d been hit by a freight train as I tried to heave myself to my feet, but I did not want attention drawn to me this close to the hotel or the office. A couple of people reached out to help and within seconds I was upright, however, it immediately became clear that standing on two feet was going to be a challenge. My ankle hurt so badly I had to lift it off the ground and hover on one leg.
‘I think this is yours.’ A twenty-something with a grotty cap on backwards and a skateboard under one arm held out the remnants of my phone. The sight brought tears to my eyes all over again.
‘Thank you.’ I took the pieces and shoved them into my bag.
‘Looks like you’ve done a right number on your foot,’ said the old man. ‘Can we call someone to help you?’
My mind went to Christos and immediately rejected that thought.
‘No, thank you. I was heading to the tram. I’ll be fine once I get home.’
‘Let me call you a cab.’ The concerned gentleman was already leaning into the road, his hand outstretched.
Almost immediately a taxi slowed to a stop by the curb—at least one thing was working in my favour. The gentleman held the door open for me and I crawled into the back seat, eager to escape this mortification. My rescue crew on the pavement waved me off like I was on a royal tour and I forced myself to wave back when all I wanted to do was bury my head in my hands and bawl.
‘Where you headed?’ The driver had a strong British accent, Geordie I thought, although it had been over ten years since my gap year backpacking around the UK.
I told him my address in Carlton, was thankful when he didn’t complain about the short trip, and even more so when he didn’t try and engage me in conversation. Was there anything worse than beauticians and taxi drivers who wanted to know your whole damn life story?
As he parked on the street outside my apartment block, I dug my purse out of my bag.
‘It’s all paid for. Your granddad gave me a fifty when you got in. Said I could keep the change.’
Ah, so that accounted for why he hadn’t grumbled about the distance. After Christos’s behaviour I’d been beginning to lose hope in humankind but the stranger’s actions helped remind me the world wasn’t all bad. I would get over this—it would likely just take a little time and an ocean of alcohol.
I thanked the driver and limped into the building, grateful not only that my apartment was on the ground floor but also that I didn’t run into any of my neighbours in the lobby. If I hadn’t already looked a sight with my tear-stained make-up and messy hair, the grazes I could feel burning on my face had sealed the deal. Pity it wasn’t Halloween—I wouldn’t even have to hire a costume!
My five-year-old groodle greeted me as I pushed open the door. I sank to the floor and buried my face in her soft fur. ‘Oh, Coco. You won’t believe my day.’
If she had any idea what had happened, she’d be as distraught as I was. She adored Christos. Let’s face it, everyone did. All my friends—especially the coupled ones—were hugely jealous of our relationship.
Dating a divorced father of three had never been a walk in the park, especially because he and his ex were involved in the new custody trend of nest parenting where their three kids stayed in their marital home and Christos and Carly took turns living there, one week on, one week off. They’d rented a two-bedroom apartment to use on their weeks ‘off’—they had a bedroom each and strict rules about keeping the communal areas clean—but recently it had become more Carly’s place as Christos had all but moved in with me on his non-kid weeks.
In theory having a week-on-week-off partner was pretty much the perfect arrangement. I had plenty of evenings where I didn’t have to share Netflix with anyone and I always knew that sex and companionship were just around the corner. But oh, how I missed him on those long weeks between. A fresh wave of pain washed over me as I realised not only would there be no more lunchtime rendezvous, but that I wouldn’t be coming home to Christos ever again.
I looked around my apartment; it suddenly felt cold and empty. Coco whined, and for a moment I thought she was commiserating with me, until she put her paw against the door. I hauled myself to my feet, grabbed a tissue and my keys and took her out into the communal garden at the back of the building.
Each step felt like torture. I wondered if I’d broken my ankle. Perhaps I should get an X-ray, but the thought of going to the hospital or even to a doctor … it was too much right now.
After Coco had relieved herself we went back inside and I hobbled to the freezer. Wasn’t ice supposed to fix everything?
I popped a couple of Panadol and then, with my foot dressed in the finest of frozen veggies and elevated on the sofa, I opened my laptop and logged into Messenger.
Happy birthday, Gralice. Hope you’re having a great day. Really sorry but I can’t drive you tonight. I tripped this afternoon and sprained my ankle. It’s pretty bad. Also broke my phone—so if you need to contact me for the next couple of days it’ll have to be via email or here. And I’m not feeling so great so think I’ll have to give tonight a miss. I’ll drop round tomorrow after work and give you your present. xo
I felt awful bailing on Gralice’s big birthday bash, but she’d have the rest of our family to celebrate and this felt more like Mum’s party than hers anyway.
I decided not to break the news to my mother for a few more hours in order to delay the lecture that would inevitably come—at least she couldn’t call me—and, in an effort to try and distract myself from the train wreck that was my heart, turned my attentions to the next issue. Buying a new phone.
In this day and age, but in my line of business especially, a mobile was something I couldn’t live without.
I woke a few hours later to the buzzing of my intercom and Coco barking up at it as if she’d never heard the sound before. I tried to get up but groaned when pain shot through my ankle, bringing back all the horrid events of the day.
Christos had ended our relationship.
Could it be him at the door?
My heart tingled. Maybe he’d called and, unable to get through, had hurried over to beg me to take him back. Well, stuff him! It would take a lot of grovelling to put the pieces of my heart back together. Let him feel a little of the anguish I had.
It was only when the buzzing continued—no pauses at all, as if a little child had their finger jammed on the button and was refusing to let go—that I realised Christos still had a key and wasn’t the type to be kept waiting. If he wanted to talk he’d already be here, standing in my small apartment, saying his piece. Disappointment filled me as the pain in my ankle travelled through my body and settled back in my chest, making it difficult to breathe.
I couldn’t remember ever experiencing such heartache over a guy before, but I’d honestly thought Christos was it, the one I’d spend the rest of my earthly days with. I’d dated heaps of men on and off throughout my twenties, but, far more focused on my career, I hadn’t been serious about anyone.
Then I hit thirty, met Christos at work and ‘serious’ suddenly became my middle name. My feelings for him had blindsided me. I didn’t care that I might never have sex with anyone else in my life, I only wanted him. He was the perfect guy for me—we were both in newspapers so understood the pressures that came with the job and, as he already had children, he didn’t want things from me I didn’t think I wanted to give.
We’d been together for almost a year now and had been planning an overseas holiday to spend Christmas and New Year in New York. I’d thought he might propose while we were there. Christos came from a family as Greek as his name and was very traditional about stuff like that. I didn’t really see the point of marriage, but I must admit I’d already had the odd schoolgirl fantasy about becoming the next Mrs Panagopoulos. Not that I’d take his surname, I couldn’t understand why any woman would, so there’d be no double-barrelled surnames either. Can you imagine Mrs Geraldine Johnston-Panagopoulos? No, thank you.
But, I loved him and was quite prepared to compromise if he thought the piece of paper important.
I hadn’t actually given much thought to how such a marriage would co-exist with Christos’s current arrangement with Carly, but I guess I never thought the nest-parenting thing would be permanent. Everything I’d read about it indicated it was a temporary situation while the kids got used to their parents being apart, and also while finances and permanent custody arrangements were finalised. That’s certainly the way Christos sold it to me. His and Carly’s divorce had just come through, so I’d assumed it wouldn’t be long before he moved in permanently with me or we got our own house so his children could stay with us every second weekend. I might have already been perusing real-estate-dot-com in my spare time. Even with Christos’s child support obligations, we might have been able to afford to buy something nice if we went a little further out of the city or if I got the promotion I was working my arse off towards.
But it looked like my fantasy was about as unlikely to come true as it was for me to find a baby unicorn at the local pet shop. At least I still had my job.
The buzzing continued to echo loudly through my apartment and I was this close to screaming and giving it a run for its money. Who on earth could it be? I still hadn’t got around to messaging my mother and letting her know I wasn’t coming, so it couldn’t be her come to drag me to their place by my hair. Could it? I might be thirty years of age, but the way Mum sometimes acted you’d think the three and zero were the other way around.
Whoever it was, if they didn’t stop pressing that buzzer soon, I was going to set my dog on them.
One look at Coco jumping up against the door like a crazed chipmunk and I realised the idea that she would ever hurt anyone was also a fantasy and I was going to have to give the intruder what for myself.
It hurt to stand and hurt even more to shuffle across the room to the intercom, which only exasperated my shitty mood.
‘Who IS it?’ I yelled into the speaker on the wall.
‘It’s your grandmother,’ Gralice’s voice shot back, ‘and you should be ashamed of yourself leaving a little old lady outside in the cold for so long.’
Little old lady, my arse.
I pressed the button to let her in to the building and opened my door.
She appeared moments later and I opened my mouth to say ‘Happy birthday’ but the words died on my tongue as she took one look at me. ‘What the fuck have you done with yourself?’
‘Didn’t you get my message? What are you doing here?’
‘You didn’t think I was going to let you off the hook? If I have to suffer through one of Sappho’s family dinners on camera, then you’re sure as hell coming as well.’
You might have guessed that Sappho is my mother, named by Gralice after the Greek poet and more commonly known by her middle name, Marie, after the French-Polish physicist and chemist, Marie Curie. Gralice is the only one who ever calls her by her first name—no one else would dare. Personally, I think Sappho a far more sophisticated name than Marie and much nicer than Geraldine. If my name were Sappho I’d never let anyone call me anything else, but my mother has never liked being different; hence the unoriginal and boring names she’d bestowed upon me and my older brother.
‘I can’t come. I can barely walk.’ I gestured to my bulbous ankle; the peas had barely made a difference.
Gralice glanced down and frowned. ‘What happened?’
‘I tripped,’ I said, deciding not to tell her I did so while running from Christos. She wasn’t the type to commiserate over a broken heart. Gralice didn’t believe women should waste time pining over any man and, although there’d been lovers over the years, she would never have considered herself attached to any of them and thus had been happily single all her life.
But I wasn’t ready to give up wallowing yet. It had only been a few hours, and right now I wished for the kind of grandma who knitted and baked and would feed me chocolate cake as I blubbered my little heart out.
‘You do look terrible,’ she conceded, ‘but we’ll be sitting down most of the night anyway. You can use this as a walking stick if need be.’ She held up her umbrella and little droplets of water splashed onto the floor. It had been sunny out when I got home, but this was Melbourne—all four seasons in a matter of hours.
‘Now, get in the bathroom and make yourself presentable. Sappho will have a fit if you turn up looking like that and Tony will be here in fifteen minutes to pick us up.’
Tony (my father) who, since being retrenched from his job at the Holden engine production factory two years ago when the car industry in Australia took its final breath, also happened to be an Uber driver. And a lollipop man, but he only did that twice a day for a short forty minutes at a time.
Gralice tsked. ‘Who ever knows what’s going through a man’s head.’ Surely now she would call my father and tell him that neither of us were coming to dinner. We could order our favourite Thai takeaway, not that I had much of an appetite for anything. Except wine.
‘I know you’re upset,’ she said instead, ‘but a woman doesn’t turn eighty every day and I want my only granddaughter there to celebrate. So get in that shower. The heat will make you feel better, and I’ll choose your outfit.’
The fact Gralice thought hot water could even begin to heal my broken heart showed how little she knew about love—at least the romantic variety—but she was right. Eighty was a milestone to make a fuss over, and not going would mean Christos had ruined not only my day but Gralice’s also.
‘Okay.’ I sniffed as I pushed myself off the floor—ouch!—and started to strip for the shower.
Less than ten minutes later I was dressed, no longer looked like an assault victim and, with the help of Gralice and her umbrella, was making my way outside to meet my father who had parked his Holden Commodore (still his pride and joy) on the street.
‘You look swish tonight, Dad,’ I said trying to sound chirpy as he pulled away from the kerb. He was wearing an honest-to-God suit, making him look like a fancy chauffeur. The last time I’d seen him wear it was to his mother’s funeral two years ago. Or was it Will’s wedding? They were around the same time.
‘I think I look like a right tosspot. Who wears a suit to have dinner in their own house?’ he said. ‘How’s your foot?’
‘Sore. Thanks for coming and getting us.’
‘It’s my pleasure—gave me an excuse to get away.’
‘Oh Dad, is it that bad?’
‘It’s getting worse by the second. It used to be I couldn’t eat my dinner before she took a photo for that Insta-thing, but now I have to dress like I’m dining with the Queen for a meal in my own house.’ He scratched his near-white, receding hairline. ‘I don’t know how much more of this I can take.’
‘You could always learn to cook yourself, then you can eat whenever the hell you like,’ Gralice suggested.
Dad chuckled as if such a thing was as unlikely as humans establishing a settlement on Mars.
Now’s probably a good time to mention that my mother is what can only be described as an Instagram and YouTube sensation. You may have heard of her. Her handle is @TheHappyHappyHousewife, and no one is more surprised than me by the fact she has over a hundred thousand followers on all her social media platforms and her YouTube channel (yes, she has her own) has been trending for months. She’s an advocate for the social movement ‘new domesticity’—a crusade that promotes the revival of the lost domestic arts of cooking, cleaning and taking care of one’s husband and children at the expense of all else.
If you ask her, it’s all about being proud to be a homemaker, not needing, wanting or looking for satisfaction and self-fulfilment outside the home. If you ask Gralice, it’s a terrifying step back in time, a slap in the face to all the hardworking women like herself who fought for gender equality and women’s liberation in terms of their bodies, children, work and relationships. Gralice does not approve of Mum’s new ‘hobby’ any more than my mother approves of Gralice’s lifelong activism.
‘Have you told Mum how you’re feeling?’
‘I’ve tried, but she tells me to stop being a grumpy old man.’
‘Well, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, Tony,’ Gralice said. ‘It’s all the things you’ve enjoyed all your married life that she’s now promoting to the masses. Why should you be the only man to benefit from her archaic ideas?’
Dad didn’t appear to know how to respond to that, so I jumped in. ‘Have you got any new Uber stories?’ He often met the most fascinating people in his job and I loved hearing about them, but right now I also thought it would be good for all of us if we thought about something other than Mum and Christos.
‘I did meet this rather interesting fellow this morning,’ he began and entertained us the rest of the way as we navigated the rush-hour traffic, telling us about the American magician he’d collected from the airport. ‘He’s in Australia for a few weeks and gave me two free tickets for next weekend, but I doubt I’ll be able to convince your mother to go with me. She’s too busy with Rosa these days.’
‘Who’s Rosa?’ Gralice asked the question before I could.
Dad snorted. ‘You’ll find out in a moment,’ he said as he slowed the car in front of their house.
My parents live in Port Melbourne. They bought their quaint, red-brick, two-storey semi-detached house a few years after they got married, long before the suburb became gentrified and trendy. There were already two other cars parked outside—one I recognised as belonging to my brother, and I wondered if the third belonged to this Rosa person, as I knew my grandfathers would have caught an Uber.
Dad and Gralice argued over who was going to help me.
‘I’m fine.’ I swung my legs to the ground and immediately winced as I tried to put pressure on my sore foot.
‘Here.’ Gralice thrust her umbrella at me and I used it to limp to the house.
Mum met us at the door wearing an apron over a pink dress I’d never seen before. She glanced down with clear disapproval at Gralice’s outfit as they exchanged an awkward hug and Gralice said, ‘Happy birthday.’
‘Hi, Mum.’ I leaned forward to give her a kiss, expecting her to mention my foot, ask what I’d done and offer some sympathy, but she looked right past me.
I knew I shouldn’t have come.
‘It’s his week with the kids,’ I said, gulping. She’d always been able to tell when I was lying, and while I wasn’t technically telling an untruth, it felt like now would be a good time to confess we’d broken up. But I didn’t want to. It was a stab to my heart just thinking about it. Speaking it out loud might make it more real and I couldn’t bear Mum’s disappointment—she’d probably be almost as heartbroken as me. She’d seen in Christos the possibility of me finally settling down.
‘Yes, I know. But it’s Gralice’s eightieth birthday. This is important. I thought he was going to get a babysitter.’
And, oh my God, she was right. In the shock of this afternoon’s events, I’d totally forgotten that Christos was supposed to be coming tonight. He said he’d booked a babysitter—had that been a lie? How long had he and Carly been contemplating this decision? Maybe he’d already moved back in with her and was just letting me down gently. This week, when he was supposed to be at their house alone with the kids, had he been there with her? I felt ill.
‘He couldn’t make it,’ I said, my tone not inviting further discussion. ‘By the way, have you had Botox?’ I was mostly trying to deflect attention from me, but her face did look suspiciously fresh and her crow’s feet were almost unnoticeable.
Gralice frowned as she scrutinised my mother—she believed in growing old dis-gracefully.
Mum lifted a hand to her brow. ‘So what if I have? Everyone’s having it these days and I have a public image to uphold.’
‘It’s cool, Mum. You look good.’ It appeared she’d also had her hair done. Her often limp, blonde, shoulder-length hair had been cut and blow-dried into a layered bob and she’d definitely had highlights, making her look younger than her fifty-four years.
She beamed. ‘Thank you, darling. A good housewife always tries to look her best. Now about—’
I cut her off. ‘Do you mind if we head inside? I can’t stand on this foot for much longer.’
And I needed a drink. One good thing about not driving was that I didn’t have to worry about my blood-alcohol level. Wine would be my friend until I could no longer remember Christos’s name.
‘Oh,’ she said, finally peering down at my ankle. ‘Is that why you’re only wearing one shoe?’ She tried to frown, but only half her face cooperated. ‘I guess we can make sure we don’t get your feet in the video.’
‘I’m not going in your video,’ I told her. My appearance might have slightly improved since my run in with the pavement, but I probably still had puffy eyes and blotchy cheeks from all the crying. Plus, I’d recently discovered people from work, many of whom usually only watched the ABC, were subscribed to Mum’s YouTube channel. They found her hilarious. Thus she would have to pay me—big bucks—to appear on it.
‘Okay, I’ll tell Rosa.’ I’d expected an objection but guessed she didn’t want my unsightly appearance to ruin the aesthetics of her latest vlog.
‘Who is Rosa?’
Mum’s eyes sparkled. ‘Ooh, Rosa is my new assistant. You’re going to fall in love with her.’
‘Your assistant?’ Gralice and I spoke at once, our eyebrows creeping skyward.
‘She’s fabulous,’ Mum said, oblivious to our shock. ‘Come on through and I’ll introduce you.’
I don’t know what I was expecting, but Rosa was not it. The word ‘assistant’ evoked images of a person barely out of their teens, wearing the kind of suit you got from Portmans and speaking one hundred words a minute. At least that’s the type of assistants I was used to at the newspaper. Rosa was not any of these things. At a guess, she was mid-to-late forties; she had long, dark, wavy hair, lovely brown skin, smile lines around her sparkling chocolate-coloured eyes, and was wearing a brightly coloured kaftan kind of thing. My entire family were cramped around the dining table—mismatched chairs brought in from all over the house—as she sat at the head, her hands flying all over the place as she spoke. Whatever she was saying, they were all hanging off her every word, no one noticing Gralice’s and my arrival until Rosa herself announced us.
‘Oh,’ she exclaimed loudly, jumping from her seat so the chair legs scraped on the vinyl. I waited for Mum to tell her off like she would us, but she didn’t so much as give this woman a disapproving glance. ‘You must be Ged and Alice. Aren’t you both divine? I’m Rosalicia, but who on God’s earth has time for that kind of mouthful, so everyone just calls me Rosa.’
I smiled as this animated woman threw her arms around us each in turn, then looked down with concern at my foot. ‘And what, my dear, have you done to yourself?’
‘I tripped and sprained it this arvo.’
‘That’s terrible.’ Her perfectly shaped near-black eyebrows drew together. ‘Does it hurt much?’
I nodded. The painkillers I’d swallowed a few hours ago had well and truly worn off.
‘You must sit.’ Rosa wrapped an arm around me and helped me over to a chair, while the rest of my family rushed to give Gralice birthday hugs.
I had to say, they were all looking rather swanky—Mum had obviously also been in their ears about looking nice. Like Dad, my brother Will and our two grandfathers, Phil and Craig, were wearing dinner suits. My sister-in-law Sophie, in a long navy dress, had also made an effort, and my niece and nephew, who looked adorable no matter what they wore, were in their Sunday best. Six-month-old Oliver was wearing an outfit almost identical to his dad’s—I didn’t know they even made suits that tiny—and three-year-old Charlotte wore a cute floral number.
Gralice, of course, had ignored Mum’s wishes and was in her usual uniform of black leather pants, a T-shirt proclaiming ‘Girls just wanna have fun-damental rights’, silver Doc Marten boots and a brown felt coat. She was the hippest eighty-year-old I knew and looked about as grandma-like as Miley Cyrus. And, since she’d been the one to choose my outfit, I probably fell short of my mother’s expectations too.
‘You look fabulous, darling, not a day over seventy-nine,’ Philip exclaimed as he handed Gralice a massive bouquet of pink-and-white variegated chrysanthemums. He and Craig, although in theory retired, still owned a very successful flower shop in St Kilda. I’d spent many hours in their shop as a child, playing among the buckets of blooms, so now one of my party tricks was being able to recognise and name more flowers than anyone in my social circle.
‘Oh stop,’ Gralice said, air-kissing both his cheeks.
Now might be a good idea to explain the whole two grandfathers situation. Philip is Gralice’s long-long-time friend. She’d boasted a gay best friend way before chick-lit and rom coms made it fashionable. In 1964, she decided she wanted to have a baby, and there was no such thing as sperm banks so she propositioned him. I can only imagine the scandal her pregnancy would have inspired, but she wasn’t in much contact with her family by then anyway.
And, actually, I didn’t need to imagine anything, because my mother had made it very clear my whole life how much she disapproved of her parents’ behaviour. I thought the sixties was supposed to be an era of free love and everything goes, but apparently growing up she was the brunt of all kinds of jokes and some rather nasty bullying thanks to her very un-conservative family situation. She wanted nothing more than to be part of a ‘normal’ family, which perhaps had something to do with her getting married when she was barely out of her teens.
Anyway, I digress. Craig is Phil’s ‘new’ husband, although they’ve been partners for longer than I’ve been alive, longer even than my parents have been married. Not long after the marriage laws changed in Australia, Philip and Craig, eighty-two and seventy-five respectively, tied the knot in the most beautiful ceremony in the cutest little chapel at the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges. There was standing room only, guests spilling out into the garden, and not a dry eye in the church—everyone so happy that after many, many years of not being free to display or acknowledge their love in public, they were finally able to shout it from the rooftops. Gralice and another one of their friends were witnesses and although the average age at the reception was over seventy, we partied at a nearby hotel until the early hours of the morning. I smile every time I think about that day and how lucky I am to have Craig as well as Phil in my life.
And, for all my mother objected about her childhood, she adored her father and her stepfather as much as the rest of us— her relationship with them had always been closer than hers with Gralice.
‘Are we doing presents now?’ asked Sophie, interrupting my reverie.
Dammit, in my haste to get ready, I’d left my gift at home.
‘No!’ Mum’s one word made everyone startle. ‘Presents will be opened on camera. In fact, now that we’re all here, let me explain to you tonight’s schedule.’
Gralice and I exchanged glances across the table. So much for this being her birthday dinner.
‘We’ve already filmed me getting ready for tonight—cooking and decorating the table—and I’ll do a little tribute to Gralice myself, talking about what she means to me …’
I try not to smirk. That should be interesting.
‘But what I want to show is my family benefiting from my care and attention to domestic duties. This vlog will be titled “How to host a special family dinner”, so, Rosa is going to film us eating and having fun together and opening the presents—but I want you all to pretend she’s not even there. Later, Rosa will edit the actual footage down to about two or three minutes max. Everyone got that?’
My family nodded and I wondered if Mum had put some kind of spell over them that made them agree to this exploitation, or if they were all secretly looking forward to their moment of fame. I could believe that of Will at a stretch, maybe even Sophie, and Phil and Craig doted on Mum so would do anything she asked, but Gralice? Something was not quite right with her tonight.
‘Don’t forget I better not be in any of the footage,’ I warned.
Rosa started a very expensive-looking camera rolling, and Mum, with Sophie’s help, started bringing out all the dishes, explaining in detail what each one was. Thankfully, she also conjured wine, acting ike Martha Stewart or someone as she filled everyone’s glasses with over-the-top flair. I drank half of mine in one gulp.
‘Is there anything else I can get for anyone?’ she asked.
When we all said we were fine, she plopped a kiss on the heads of both of her grandchildren and sat at the head of the table. I couldn’t help noticing my dad, at the other end, looked miserable.
At first we were all terribly conscious of the camera in the corner recording every moment of our conversation. Everyone was being exceedingly polite, and Sophie looked like she might have a coronary when Charlotte scooped up some mashed potato in her fingers and spread it over her baby brother’s head.
‘It’s fine.’ Mum smiled adoringly at her granddaughter. ‘The potatoes are organic,’ she said towards the camera, ‘and I used milk and butter, fresh from a local dairy. It’ll probably do his cradle-cap good, but I’ll go get a lovely warm flannel to clean him up.’
I wanted to ask what dairy farm was local to Port Melbourne but bit my tongue. Stilted conversation went on for another five minutes before everyone forgot Rosa was there. For someone who was clearly a very charismatic person, she also knew how to blend into the background when required.
I had to admit the evening was going well. Dinner was delicious, but Mum had spent over thirty years perfecting the art of cooking—she could give all those contestants on MasterChef a run for their money. And it was good to sit back and relax with my family. I only thought of Christos maybe once or twice. After the main meal, we had an intermission so Mum could clean up a little and Will could go settle Charlotte in the spare room.
My mother made a comment—which sounded more disapproving than admiring—about how hands-on fathers were these days and then, thank God, it was time for the cake. My mouth watered as she carried out her marvellous creation, a two-tiered chocolate and vanilla marble cake with gold icing and chocolate numbers—eight and zero—seemingly erupting from the top. It almost looked too good to eat but, after an out of key, very loud rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’, we devoured it.
There were tears in Gralice’s eyes and she sounded rather choked up as she thanked Mum for dinner and everyone for coming. I frowned, trying to recall another time my grandmother had been so emotional. Perhaps turning eighty did that to a woman. I reached across the table and squeezed her hand.
Sophie looked to my mother. ‘Now is it time for presents?’
‘Yes. But I get to go first.’ Mum clicked her fingers and Rosa stepped away from the camera long enough to retrieve an artistically wrapped box from the side table.
Gralice took the gift and tugged at the ribbon. ‘A candle,’ she exclaimed a few moments later as we all stared at the purple candle, its wax speckled with what looked to be hundreds and thousands.
‘Not just any candle,’ Mum said, again speaking to the camera rather than her own mother. ‘I made it myself. The container is an old recycled jam jar, and anyone who wants to make one themselves can check out my latest vlog. Candles do really add so much to a home and the scents can also be very useful alternative therapies.’
‘Thank you, I’m sure,’ Gralice said and I had to smother a laugh. She wasn’t one for smelly things—didn’t see the point—and the fact that Mum either didn’t know, understand or care only highlighted their differences.
Will and Sophie gave her a framed photograph of Charlotte and Oliver and, although Gralice had also never been the sentimental type and had very few photos on display in her little terraced cottage in Fitzroy, she exclaimed in genuine delight as she hugged it against her chest. Phil and Craig gifted her some expensive whiskey glasses in addition to the flowers they’d already given her. These were perfect, as a tipple (or two) of an evening was something Gralice enjoyed.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said with an annoyed-at-myself sigh. ‘I did get you something’—I’d found a signed first edition of A Brief History of Time online—‘but left it at home.’
‘Don’t worry.’ Gralice sniffed and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. ‘Now, it’s my turn.’
Her turn? We all frowned as she bent to retrieve something from her handbag. ‘I also have a little gift for myself,’ she announced, holding up three white envelopes.
Posted on August 16, 2019 by harlequinaustralia