A client you’ve mentioned many times calls at our home. Unusual. You usually go to his office in the city.
‘So this is Alice,’ he says, dropping to his haunches in front of the child I’ve come to think of as our daughter. His eyes are almost level with hers. ‘Hi Alice. I’ve heard so much about you.’
For a while I keep myself busy in the kitchen. I peek my head around the corner of the studio. Three heads swing in my direction.
‘Roland, this is my housemate, Rachel.’
You’re not looking at me. You’re smiling at him.
Black Audi Roland.
I wait. You have already texted that you will be late, but 1:37? Headlights sweep slats of pale light across the curtains and disappear. The roller door clunks up and then comes down. The key is in the lock, a tiny snick, then the front door closes. I turn on the bedside light and hunch up.
‘I told you not to wait up,’ you say.
You drop your handbag on the chair in the corner. You sit on the bed beside me and tug at the scarf around your throat. My hand lies on the top of the sheet. You enclose it within yours. You bend your head as if you might be about to murmur a prayer, a benediction, a condolence. Soft and grave, you look up. ‘There’s something I have to tell you.’
You sit at a corner table of the café in the shadows. When you see me your face lights up. You stand and move towards me with your arms out.
‘It’s so lovely to see you. I wondered if you’d show.’ I’m still holding my plastic smile, and you put your arms lightly around me and we air kiss. You seem thinner than I remember.
We order coffee from a boy with brio and a shaved head.
‘It’s not really about Alice,’ you say. ‘I thought you might refuse to come otherwise.’
How would one more lie make any difference?
You fiddle with a white paper napkin. ‘I told Mum and Dad about you and me. I wanted to get some honesty into my relationship with them.’
Ha! Rona and Doug getting their Hillsong heads around that revelation! ‘How did that fit into the divine family plan?’
‘Oh … you know … they pray for me …’ You give me that grin, the crooked one with the rueful tug at the corner of your mouth that used to melt me. ‘In spite of what I’ve told them, they still can’t seem to get their heads around why I left Nathan. So when Roland appeared …’
‘Oh goody. A stepdad for Alice.’
You pick up the napkin and start to twist it into a pretzel. ‘I’ve been seeing a counsellor.’ You clear your throat. ‘Not letting people know that you were my partner … I couldn’t admit how unfair it was to you.’ You suck in breath and your gaze slides away. ‘Nathan’s a great Dad, and Roland’s a good man. I hurt them badly, as I hurt you, Rachel.’ You move to the shredding stage. ‘I wanted to see you to apologise. You deserved better. Much, much better.’
A clot forms in my throat. ‘Enough,’ is what I would say if I could get the words out.
‘I was really happy with you, Rach, particularly in the beginning, in spite of what you might think.’ You reach across the table and grip my hand. ‘I really was in love with you.’
Christ almighty, show me some mercy. Strike me deaf now. Make me leave before I say something stupid.
You give a little self-deprecating laugh. ‘I only ever fall in love with women. I can have sex with men, but I can’t fall in love with them. And after a while I don’t even want to have sex with them either.’ You pick at your fingernails. ‘It’s a pity I didn’t realize that sooner.’
Our lattes arrive. You fiddle with your coffee spoon even though you don’t take sugar.
Deflect, deflect, regroup. I clear my throat. ‘So how is Alice?’ How will I bear to hear? How could I not ask?
Your eyes burn. ‘She was happy when Roland left, but she’s still angry with me for sending you away.’
‘But we told her I had a job transfer—’
‘She knew what was happening. You know Alice.’
A laugh seeps out of us in small grimaces.
Your face softens. ‘What’s your situation now, Rach? Do you have someone special in your life?’
I am in a wind tunnel. Whoosh whooshing. I try not to think of my unit, my empty cubicle, the lifeless air when I come home at night. ‘I live alone.’
I’m lost, the ground is slipping away, I must find a handhold, something to halt my slide towards the precipice.
‘So, do you think we could—’
‘It would be a dead cat bouncing.’ My own words reach out to save me.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It’s the idea of a dead cat being struck by a car and leaping into the air as if it’s still alive, and then falling back onto the road. Totally dead.’
I am not the sort of person who says things like that. Am I?
Gathering your bag, you stand and nod in the direction of the cash register. ‘I’ll get this,’ you say and stride towards the counter.
A premonition of the shame that would haunt me if I let you go in this way jerks me to my feet. I call out to you. You turn, hesitate.
‘Please come back.’
Eyeing me suspiciously, you make your way back to the table. I tell you in an outpouring of violent emotion what I hadn’t recognised in myself until that moment—how grateful I am that you and Alice had been in my life. How much I’d missed the life that we once had.
When we part we hold one another so closely that I can feel your heart racing.
‘Nathan will be bringing Alice back on Sunday afternoon,’ you say. ‘Why don’t you come over?’
The front doorbell rings.
You open the door and Alice shrieks: ‘She’s here! I can see her car!’
Nathan stands behind Alice, pink backpack in hand.
‘Hey Alice! Wait! Give your Dad a hug!’ Nathan says. He sees me and momentarily his jaw sags. ‘Err … Hello, Rachel.’
Eyebrow raised, he hands Alice’s backpack to you. Alice pulls away from him and sprints towards me. ‘Don’t run, Alice!’ you call after her.
I drop to my knees. Alice scrambles over me in a whirlwind of blurred limbs. I drag myself up from the scrum, and she rises with me, refusing to let go. I laugh and make my way crablike down the hall, with Alice still hanging off one leg. I lift her up.
‘I knew you would come back,’ she croons into my neck. ‘I missed you—I missed you so much, Rach. I wanted you to come home. Every day, that’s what I wanted.’
I murmur sounds into her ear, kiss her hot, flushed face.
Your gaze bores into mine with both anguish and pleading. I can’t expunge four years of my life as if it never happened. Gently I try to unwind Alice’s limbs from my torso.
‘Steady on, you little boa constrictor,’ I say, laughing to cover my tumult of feeling. ‘Come and show me your drawings.’
Reluctantly she releases me. She slides down my legs to the floor. She grabs my hand, and skipping ahead, drags me down the hall to her bedroom. You follow, and as Alice leafs through her drawings and paintings, slip your hand into mine and squeeze.
‘And this painting’s from when I got lost,’ Alice says and holds up a wrinkled sheet of foxed paper scrawled in charcoal. ‘You put my name over the loudspeaker, and I had to wait for you to get me. Your face was all red and blotchy!’
‘That’s such a long time ago, sweetheart. How could you still remember?’
‘I remember everything we ever did,’ Alice says.
‘Surely not everything,’ you say, looking worried. Shouted words behind doors. Arctic silences at breakfast. Alice would not have forgotten those.
‘I was so relieved I wanted to throttle you! You gave me a terrible fright.’
Alice smiles smugly and pulls out the next picture.
Over Alice’s head, you and I exchange a look of joint appeal, helpless witnesses to such innocent faith.
‘Why don’t you stay for dinner?’
At the kitchen bench Alice beats the goo for the corn fritters. Under your supervision, she fries them to a point beyond sludge but before incineration. I scavenge in the fridge and make a salad. You pour two glasses of white wine and we sit down to eat.
Alice twirls a donut shaped fritter on the end of her fork with an air of triumph and satisfaction. She takes slow bites and looks at me sideways as if she thinks that I might disappear again. You look at me that way too.
With a mixture of slyness and apprehension, Alice says: ‘Will you read to me before bed tonight? Or I can read to you. I know a lot of new words.’
‘Ithmuth,’ she says through the gap in her front teeth.
‘I-S-T-H-M-U-S,’ she says benevolently.
‘Goodness. Do you know what that means?’
‘Actually, I am quite clever.’
‘Modest, too,’ you say, placing a hand on dark springy curls.
‘So, do you know archipelago?’
Alice shakes her head and I try to explain about chunks of land that somehow got separated from the mainland. I know little about geography, even less about the strange and compelling dream that I seem to be floating in. But Alice is real. She bounces up from the table and runs down the hall to return with an A3 sheet of paper and a handful of marker pens.
She bites her bottom lip and looks up at me. ‘How many islands are there?’
‘As many as you like. They’re a group, that’s the thing.’
She selects a different colour for each Rorschach blob, then fills the surrounding ocean with cavorting whales and dolphins. ‘You can have this for your house.’
‘Thank you. I’ll put where I can see it every day.’
You refill our glasses.
‘If you have too much to drink you aren’t allowed to drive,’ Alice says.
‘Who told you that?’
‘Roland. But he always had too much to drink.’
‘I’m not going to have too much to drink.’
She looks at me and purses her lips. ‘That’s what Roland used to say too.’
Already birds are about their business, twittering and chirruping. I lie here with my heart banging and wonder if the best thing to do would be to rise and silently leave. Your fingers sneak across the sheets.
‘Are you going?’ you say.
‘I’ll come back to visit Alice. But not like this.’
I have a sense of heaviness, of harbouring a reservoir of feeling that could drag me under. We are separated by a wide channel that I cannot swim against. I have tried, but that deep, passionate attachment has ebbed away, washed up.
Out of the watery light: ‘Can you forgive me?’ you say.
Something’s rising up, or maybe falling away. Dark currents have swept me far beyond your reach. You cannot haul me back. I remain flotsam. Adrift.
‘There’s nothing to forgive. It’s just what happens sometimes.’
I want to tell you that whatever it is that you miss, will surface again one day with someone else. Try not to dwell on last night. Be okay for Alice.
I have no right to say these things.
One tiny island has been submerged, that’s all. Many are left.
Jan Prior writes contemporary women’s fiction. She has been self-employed as a screen printer, a picture framer and house renovator, and is still a practising visual artist. In 2019, she graduated from Queensland University of Technology with a BFA in Creative and Professional Writing. Jan identifies as lesbian, and lives in a small country town near Brisbane. She gets lost anywhere else.