May Ling steps across the skipping rope. I’m waiting for her with her baby brother, outside the school hall, but she hasn’t seen me yet. Every Thursday when she finishes her Hip Hop class I hang about with the other mothers and grandmothers and carers. It’s a routine I enjoy—walking up here with the baby in the stroller and then chatting with May Ling as we walk home.
May Ling is my son’s daughter. She has straight black hair and brown almond eyes, slim legs and tiny hands. Her hands are artistic: she draws beautiful pictures. In her black strappy shoes and blue-and-white school dress that falls below her knees, she looks very grown-up.
The park is on the bend of the road that leads to the school. There is a sandpit, swings, slippery dip, climbing chains and a rocking horse. We put our things down on one of the wooden benches on the perimeter of the park and sit in the shade of the trees. I unpack the afternoon tea: three apples, two bottles of water, rice crackers, sultana biscuits, peanut butter sandwiches.
The other mothers and carers come over and start up a conversation. What beautiful children. How old are they? What nationality?
‘Their mother is Chinese,’ I explain.
Some women are envious; they wish their own mothers would mind the children when they go to work or play golf.
I’ve got the bucket and spades and the plastic rakes hanging off one of the handles of the stroller ready for the sandpit. I keep them in the boot of the car between visits. Also in the boot is the collapsible stroller, the picnic blanket, the extra booster seat, the beach chair and the Cancer Council tent all folded up tight in its blue bag. I’m prepared for all possibilities.
When we leave the park we stop outside the rose garden of the RSL club so May Ling can pick a flower to take home to her mummy. Sometimes we sing a song from The Wizard of Oz. Today May Ling is chanting, Where’s my daddy? Where’s my daddy? I’d said to her that he might drive past and give her a lift like he’d done once before.
Ingrid said she’s surprised that with all his qualifications he can’t get a job. I said he doesn’t want any job. It has to be the right job, even if it takes him six months—yet again—to find it.
Last week I was standing in the kitchen at his house and he was rinsing the plates on the bench and stacking them into the dishwasher. I told him that May Ling had asked if mummy and daddy were getting a divorce. He laughed and said he would have to tell her to stop telling me things. ‘Don’t stop her from talking to me,’ I said. ‘Everyone fights. I told her that.’
After dinner and when it’s time for him to go upstairs to run a bath, I say my goodbyes. I am not allowed to go up because they all get in the bath together. He gives me a couple of chocolates from out of the fridge to eat on my way home before kissing me on the cheek at the front door.
‘Drive carefully, Sofia,’ he calls out as I head towards the car.
When I’d told him about the split-up with Tom he’d said he could never understand what on earth I’d seen in the man.
Doctor Ross had said that a lot of people continue in a relationship because they don’t want to go through the pain of breaking up. ‘In six months time you won’t feel a thing,’ he said in an effort to reassure me.
I shrugged. ‘The grandchildren won’t be pleased.’
‘Grandma’s broken up with her surfie boyfriend.’ he joked.
A seagull, wings flapping calmly and evenly, passes this place where I sit. It’s a crescent-shaped bay on the harbour where a man and a woman walk hand in hand along the beach, their dog running ahead. Tiny ripples on the water drift gently towards the shore.
Tom seemed calm at first, after I said what must have disappointed him, but then he became withdrawn and went into the bathroom. He cleaned his teeth and then came back out. He pulled the sheets back on the bed. He got in and appeared to fall asleep straight away.
‘Good night,’ I said to his back.
‘I thought I said goodnight,’ he said, turning towards me.
‘Goodnight,’ I said kissing him on the cheek.
He turned away again.
I can see now that Tom felt out of his depth at my younger son’s wedding and I feel remorse for hurting him.
Ingrid had counseled: ‘His mother probably said to him, “I told you she’d drop you after the wedding”.’
A row of tall dark cypress trees shield the beach from the road. On one of the wooden bench chairs by the water sits a woman dressed all in black.
‘What’s your mother like?’ I asked.
‘She sits in a corner and does what she’s told,’ he said. ‘I sat up with her last night and we watched a movie. What do you think of that?’
‘I think it’s dreadful—dreadful that you’re still living there with your parents.’
‘It’s very difficult for me. Very difficult. It’s the money.’
‘What do you want from him?’ his mother said to me, unable to hide the hatred in her voice, when I’d called that one time.
I told Tom what his mother said.
He wanted to say to her: ‘Are you pleased—are you pleased now? Have you got what you want?’
So now I am back to how things had been before, alone at nights, and as though he had never existed.
In the school holidays May Ling usually stays for a day or two at my place. One day recently she came running up the steps carrying a drawing and a poster of a horse. I came out to meet her, wiping my hands on the chequered tea-towel. I’m sure my face was flushed from the heat. May Ling’s floral skirt was almost to her ankles as she kicked off her shoes at the back door. I said to her that she looked as pretty as a picture.
‘Do you have the photos? The ones of daddy when he was a baby? I’ve been waiting all day to see the photos.’
‘Yes, yes. Come on in and we’ll get out the album.’
The last of the sun’s light slanted through the blinds as we sat side by side turning the pages. ‘You don’t look anything like you used to look,’ she said.
‘It was a long time ago,’ I sighed. ‘My hair is not the same. Poppy looks very different too, don’t you think?’
She shook her head. ‘No. He looks the same to me. Poppy looks the same.’
‘It must be my hairstyle.’
‘Why did you and Poppy divorce?’
‘I got married too young. I was only a teenager.’
‘Did you have a fight?’
I didn’t answer so she moved the conversation on to the split up with Tom. She’s let me know several times that she’s upset about it and can’t understand why it’s happened.
‘And what about you and Tom and your divorce?’ she asked, rolling her eyes upward. ‘Or whatever you call it. The divorce that isn’t a divorce. Did you have a fight?’
‘Yes, I told you before.’
‘It was about a couple of things.’
‘What did you fight about?’
‘I told you one of the things.’
‘I’ve forgotten. What things?’
‘It’s very hard to tell you because you’re only six years old and you mightn’t understand.’
‘Tell me and I’ll tell you if I understand.’
‘Well it’s hard to say exactly. Like, can you put into words why you didn’t like that teacher at school, except that she expected too much of you?’
‘Yes. She asked us to draw our favourite place. I said, Port Stephens is my favourite place but I don’t know how to draw it. She said, Just do it, and didn’t give me any help. Miss McDonald used to help us do things. Not, Do this, Do that. So, there I’ve said it. It’s your turn now.’
I was uncomfortable having this conversation with May Ling. Her father has warned me that she will persist and persist and persist until she gets the answers and the more you try to escape her questions the more she persists. May Ling is not like other six-year-olds. Her parents treat her as an equal and she appears to be very mature. She knows I met Tom at a dance. It was a ‘meet your match’ dance and you had to choose a name for yourself from the name cards laid out at the front door when you arrived. Like Batman and Robin, Bec and Lleyton. You chose a card and had to find your matching partner. He selected Tarzan and I chose Jane.
‘Well, I told you the bit about the photo,’ I said.
‘When I saw the photo in his wallet. It was a rude picture.’
‘A bare bottom?’
‘No, the top half.’
‘Of a friend?’
‘No. He cut the photo out of a magazine.’
‘Who was she?’
‘No-one he knew. Just someone he’d cut out of a magazine. There was no photo of his sons or of me.’
‘I don’t think that’s so bad,’ she said. ‘What else happened? You said there were two things?’
‘He was a lot younger.’
‘You could have said your birthday came before his.’
‘Well what do you think would be a good reason?’
‘If he found another girlfriend.’
Outside a van rounded the bend of the road and disappeared down the hill with a swooshing sound. After a pause I said: ‘I remember now why we split up. The problem was that I didn’t love him and he said he loved me.’
She frowned. ‘Well, let’s play a game. One of us is Tom and the other one is you and we have the fight.’
‘No, darling. Let’s go upstairs and have a story. It’s late. It’s already past your bedtime.’
‘Let’s do it, Sofia. I’ll be Tom.’ She scowled at me her brows knitted in a triangle. ‘Oh Sofia,’ she pleaded.
‘If you go to bed now I’ll let you choose the story or otherwise I’ll chose it.’
She crossed her arms with a ‘Humph’. Then, ‘Well show me how you used to dance with Tom. You said that’s where you met him.
Taking her hand I said, ‘Come on, darling.’
We went up to her bedroom and she looked through her bookcase carefully for the appropriate story. No Dr Seuss or The Little Mermaid tonight. Instead she decided on Beauty and the Beast: the story of a man who is unable to love someone, so he’s turned into an ugly beast.
It was dark in the lounge room, but I didn’t open the shutters. I didn’t feel anything in particular, no hate, no repugnance. I had agreed that he could come when he asked the previous evening. I paid close attention to the sounds, to the light, to the noises in the
park next door that had enveloped the room. He looked at me stretched out on the couch expecting me to speak. I didn’t look him in the face. Didn’t look at him at all.
‘You’ll see,’ he said. ‘It will be better this time. Things will be better.’
He removed my shoes, threw them on the floor. ‘So you’ll give me another chance?’
He knelt beside me. Didn’t say any more that he loves me. Said, ‘It’s a comfort to know we’ll keep seeing each other.’
I didn’t answer.
‘That’s all I want,’ he said. ‘Just to know I’m going to see you.’
He unzipped my jeans.
‘You know it will end again,’ I said.
‘Not too soon though. Will it?’
Slowly. Slow, patient. With my eyes shut. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I’m prepared to take the risk,’ he said. ‘I want to. I don’t want to not see you again.’
I stroked his hair.
He pulled off his T-shirt. Undressed himself.
A seagull, wings flapping gently and evenly passes this place where I sit. He skirts the line of the beach between water and sand and finally comes to rest on the top rung of the railing that defines the path to the beach.
‘Sex is good for you,’ the female doctor had said, moving back to her desk. It was a routine examination.
‘Us women need the testosterone,’ she added with a little smile.
I’d wanted to end it again, it must have been for the fifth time. After the phone call I felt angry and wanted to tell him not to come. I was letting him visit against my will, since I was still angry. The next night and for several nights after that I wanted to tell him not to come. He’s conducted himself in a way that disgusted me. He denied he’d had a couple of drinks and said he was tired, that no, he hadn’t been drinking, he was just tired.
I was silent at first, after he said what repulsed me, but then he sensed my lack of warmth and said he’d call again before the weekend. He asked who I was going out to dinner with and I say it was a married couple, some friends who had invited other friends of mine but I didn’t want to include him in the invitation because he’d feel uncomfortable with these people and this would make me ill at ease too. He could come on the Friday.
‘You were waiting for him to grow up, but he hasn’t,’ Dr Ross had said forcefully, with intention, as was his way. ‘It won’t work. You’ll get bored with him again. You don’t like the uncertainty. You’re in control in this relationship. You’re the adult. He’s the child. It’s your call—your choice. I just try to give you support.’
The wind blows from the south. The waves soften at their edges. May Ling is playing in the sand with her red bucket. She’s looking for schools of fish to catch, the white plastic ice cream container full of shells and sand and seaweed. Her small fingers rearrange the pieces of her collection. A seaplane labours against the wind, not quite balanced between sea and clouds.
‘May Ling,’ I call out. ‘Look at the seaplane.’
She looks up through the brim of her black eyelashes then walks up towards me.
‘Look what I’ve got,’ she says, opening her fingers.
‘What sugar plum?’
‘Have you ever collected shells before?’
‘No.’ She puts them into the plastic container filled with seawater and sand. ‘A fish tank,’ she says proudly.
‘Do you like this beach?’
She shrugs. ‘It’s not too bad.’
She walks back to the water’s edge, tiptoeing between the rocks and the flotsam and jetsam that the waves have left on the shore, skipping across the moss-covered stones.
‘Sofia , can you come in with me?’ she calls out. ‘Come into the water and help me catch some fish.’
There is the sound of the waves lapping the shore. Butterflies—mostly turquoise and black—more colour than the birds, flit between the branches and flap in front of the harbour. The sea plane finishes its circling and lands not far from the beach.
‘There’s something so wonderful about watching the waves,’ Tom had said. ‘Especially when you’ve just been out there, and come back in. Afterwards I always like to just sit on the sand and watch the waves.’
May Ling comes back up to where I sit under a tree on the grass. ‘I’m hungry,’ she says. ‘Did you bring anything to eat?’
I reach for the cooler bag and unzip it. ‘What would you like?’
May Ling looks in at the food and frowns. ‘Is that all?’
She reaches for a small carton of apple juice and sips quickly on the straw before handing it back.
‘Isn’t it any good?’
She smirks. ‘It tastes off.’ She turns around and walks back towards the sea.
‘It tastes fine to me,’ I call out.
She yells from the water’s edge: ‘Sof, can you come in?’
The water is all green and slippery shimmering in the sunlight.
Yesterday I had lunch at a Japanese restaurant after a visit to the gym. It was not unusual for me to be there at that time, no more unusual than all the other people sitting alone on bar stools as the small containers of food did their revolutions. Jason, a friend I hadn’t seen for a long time was manipulating his chopsticks with great intensity. He was greying, confident, but struggling to attract patients to his new psychology practice.
‘They can see value in spending money on a massage,’ he complained, ‘but not in a visit to someone like me.’
After we talked about our work and our families and our lives in general under the glare of the fluorescent light, he raised his eyebrows and gave his opinion on the relationship with Tom.
‘I have to be honest. I feel very angry. If it was a man in the same situation people would say, dirty old man. But for a woman it’s okay. Someone that age has a prick that’s ready morning, noon and night. I’m more interested in a mature woman—someone I can really talk to. I’m not interested in young women. They might have great bodies but that doesn’t do it for me.’
‘What do you think, Sofia, do they look okay? Is this what you’d imagined I’d wear to the beach—Sofia? Do I look all right? Is this what you’d imagined me wearing when you said we’d go for a swim this weekend?’
‘I hadn’t imagined you on the beach,’ my irritated voice had answered from the bed. ‘I hadn’t thought about what you’d be wearing on the beach.’
He’d been preening himself from side to side in front of the mirror opposite the sun-drenched rosy pink chaise lounge—pale against the warm tones; but when he walked back towards the mirror, he turned bronze again from head to foot, in his shiny black swimmers. His fine body hair covered his legs and arms.
‘Usually I don’t wear a costume under my wetsuit,’ he said, ‘so I bought these Speedos and a pair of board shorts. Which ones do you think I should wear to the beach?’
‘You can wear both. Wear the Speedos under the board shorts.’
He was standing in front of the sliding mirrored doors that framed the wardrobe opposite two windows, looking at the reflection of a very boyish, very attractive figure, not very tall or very small, with blonde loose curly hair like that of a cherub. He pulled on the cord of his swimming costume, puffed out his hard freckled chest, curved like a suit of armour; and the whites of his hazel eyes and his white regular teeth glowed through the apricot warmth of the room.
‘It’s fine, Tom,’ I reassured him. ‘They look fine. You haven’t got any white marks from the wetsuit. Either costume looks fine. Whatever you feel comfortable in. You can wear whatever you want.’
He grinned. ‘I’ve never owned a pair of Speedos. I’ve watched blokes on the beach in their Speedos walking up from the water.’
He laughed to himself, unable to disguise the pride in his voice: ‘They call these swimming costumes budgie smugglers. That’s what they’re called now.’
‘Ingrid’s eyes will pop out of her head when she sees you at Nielson Park today.’
Tom, motionless in front of his own image, laughed again to himself. ‘I know so well not to wear the wrong thing when I’m with you.’
‘I thought you were using your head instead of …’ Ingrid said, unable to hold back the intensity of her disapproval. She had been showing me the latest photos of her new dog. She is very happy with Skippy and has said that he is good company and that he sleeps on her bed.
Before telling her I was back with Tom again I’d said I had something say, but please don’t pass judgment. She spat the words at me.
‘It’s not that,’ I said. ‘That’s not the motivation. It’s for the companionship.’
‘Companionship? You can have that with girlfriends. Tom has no conversation.’
‘But he’s easy to be with. It’s nice to go out for a meal or to the movies.’
‘Movies are good. You don’t talk and there’s something going on.’ She sipped her latte then added, ‘He’s not the answer.’
‘There is no answer. It’s the loneliness. I can’t stand the loneliness.’
She nodded then sat more upright in her chair. ‘We’re all different. It’s a long way for him to travel though.’
‘Three hours either way.’
‘Must be worth his while.’
‘It might last a week, a month, a year, who knows. If you get the big C diagnosis you could be dead in a few weeks.’
She shrugged. ‘We all make our decisions. That’s why I bought my little
Skippy.’ She put his puppy photos back into her handbag.
The ocean must be calm today. No energetic crashing coming from the direction of the sea. This morning I’m inside protected from the heat behind heavy curtains. I can’t see the water.
‘Messenger boy.’ he’d laughed, referring to himself, on an overcast Saturday morning, after he’s brought me a cup of tea in bed and was about to go up the road to buy the newspaper.
‘Having you just completes my life,’ he said when he finished reading the sports pages. ‘I can’t think of anything nicer than sitting on the bed with you on a morning like this. After the weekend I’m going to go back feeling so good. Thank you so much.’
He stretched himself out on the chaise lounge that was under the window next to the bed and said: ‘Everyone’s got someone. Why shouldn’t we? Who cares what anyone else thinks? It’s between you and me.’
‘What did your parents say when you said you’re coming to Sydney this weekend?’
He grinned. ‘Nothing. When I said goodbye Dad said to Mum, Just let him go.’
‘Did your mother say something?’
‘How do you feel about your parents going away for two months on Monday?’
‘Last time you were worried before they went away. But you know now how to use the washing machine.’
‘I’ve got it all written down. I’ve got it written it in a book.’
‘What’s the resolution of the story?’ May Ling asks, sprinkling grated cheese on her pasta.
‘How do you know these things?’ I say. ‘Who tells you?’
‘In First Class at school they teach you about the resolution of a story?’
‘In the library. What is the problem that starts the story?’
‘Do you know what resolution means?
‘It means how things turn out in the end.’
I look to my son and daughter-in-law: ‘What will they teach them in Year Twelve if they learn this in First Class already?’
‘You haven’t answered me,’ interrupts May Ling. ‘I’m listening,’ she says with a hand to her ear.
‘It’s very hard for me to explain these things to you,’ I say yet again.
‘What are the complexities of the story?’ she asks.
I turn to my son for help.
‘The story is about a woman who is looking for love,’ he says to his daughter.
‘There are many kinds of love,’ I apologise. ‘Not just between a man and a woman. Love for children … grandchildren.’
A quiet still morning. Water trickles down through the rocks after last night’s rain. Several different bird calls in the gully. Intermittent hammering in the unit above. The large heavy curtains barely parted to keep out the eastern heat, but open enough to see the leaves of a tree rustling in the morning sea breeze that blows across my feet.
Tom and I had stood at the window and looked through the bare branches and realized that now we could see all the way to the horizon at Bondi. The ridge blocked the line of the horizon but we could see the clouds that hung just above it. We’d loved watching the sky.
‘I’ve seen the sky looking like this before,’ he’d said, putting his arm around my waist.
‘What do you mean?’
‘So still. A winter sky.’
At the back door before he left he said: ‘So you think there’s still heat in the furnace?’
I’d laughed and nodded.
‘That’s what the expression is, isn’t it?’
‘I don’t know. I haven’t heard it. Heat in the fire? It probably feels like a furnace to you.’
‘It works well being casual like this,’ he said. ‘We don’t have to deal with each others problems.’
I asked Ingrid what she thought he meant by that. She said it was probably something he’d heard someone else say.
‘I’ve been thinking about it—wondering what he meant.’
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘He didn’t mean anything. He just says things that he hears other people say.’
‘I’m very proud to be seen with you,’ he’d said. ‘A younger man with an older woman. I’m not ashamed to be seen with you.’
Now, I sit by the water until the sun goes down. Then walk back home.
Copyright © 2016 Libby Sommer
First published in Quadrant
Header image: Creative Commons