Marie and I wandered along the beach with Alice – all eighteen months of her – swinging gleefully between us.
‘Alice the astronaut, go for the galaxy,’ Marie giggled. She had already travelled a long way from her home in London (east side) exploring a whole new world, a totally different life with me, here in Victoria, Australia, Planet Earth (south side). She was very good at exploring, adjusting, finding a way through. It helped us both that she was so far away from her devout parents, the nuns, mass every Sunday. Or so she said, and I believed her.
With the next swing a shaft of pain streaked through my shoulder. Then another. I let go of Alice and crouched in the sand.
‘Oh shit, Marie, hang on,’ I mumbled.
‘Jules, you okay? You need your meds, a joint?’
‘No, no, it’s cool, it’ll go.’
‘So the surgery, it’s been, what, three months? Still not working?’
‘Nope, not yet,’ I gasped, half bent-over, holding my shoulder, trying to breathe steadily. ‘Shit, it hurts when it hurts.’
‘Your Aussie rules, a tough game, right?
‘Yeah. And did it at training. Not even a proper match. Ooh, shit. And Alice is tiny. I’ll sue that surgeon.’
‘Hey Jules, I’m here. Let’s sit for a little. Just the three of us.’
We sat, Marie caressing my shoulder, her hands so soft, the great Southern Ocean lapping at our toes. Alice, brandishing a tiny plastic bucket, played at the water’s edge. Stepping around fine shells and pebbles, washed gently by tiny waves.
‘She’s no trouble,’ I said. ‘Watching her, I feel better. Who needs the birthing bit? How long have you got her for?’
‘Two weeks this time, but stay tuned. Her folks had another bust-up, her mum’s flown south to Hobart – with some woman, I think. And the old man’s flown north, to Japan, skiing.’
‘Well,’ I said, feeling stronger, ‘the planet’s a big place, fortunately. Her mum sounds kinda interesting.’
‘Yep. Married for just a year, wedding at St. John’s, the whole routine. Jules, you okay? Let’s head for the house. Alice needs a feed anyway.’
We left the beach and walked carefully along the shopping strip, meeting nobody, before turning left into a narrow road. Big houses, cars and boats, scuba-diving gear, golf buggies, spread across manicured lawns, there to be noticed. As we passed yet another tennis court, I tried to convince myself that I didn’t really want all that wealth – just a little of it would do. Being a law student such a life-style was possible, eventually, once I started working. But I still had no idea who I really was, or what I really did want. Apart from Marie, that is. We reached the house, our cosy little weekend love-nest: shiny, modern, double garage, three bedrooms, and the biggest TV I’d ever seen. It all belonged to Alice’s parents – one or the other or both or maybe his company, whatever – and Marie could visit when caring for Alice. It took us about a minute to decide to shack-up in luxury for a great weekend. Better, much better, than our grotty share house. We caught the train from the city, then the bus from Geelong, Alice in a pusher, us carrying backpacks stuffed with beach gear and our special toy – essential luggage, like, no question. We’d arrived the night before and, through a dope-induced haze, I’d begun to like the place. And the toy – used gently – was as always amazing.
Rounding a corner, we stopped short: a Mercedes, all white and shiny, was parked in our driveway. Someone was inside. I looked at Marie.
‘Any ideas?’ I asked.
‘Nope,’ shrugging her shoulders.
‘Well, honey-child, I guess we’ll have to find out. Not many options, really. Hang onto that gorgeous kid. She’s our entry-ticket.’
Marie studied the car as we walked, a little tentatively, to the front door. ‘Look,’ she said, pointing to a pile of books, labelled ‘Holy Bible’, on the back seat. ‘God’s arrived, good news!’ and then, with a cheeky grin: ‘Suffer the little children, right? I read that somewhere.’
‘Priests playing with kids? No way! You mad? Alice, stay close,’ I said, as we squeezed past the car. ‘This could be interesting,’ I whispered, opening the front door with my good arm, using Marie’s key – to be greeted by the screams of children from a back room, apparently rearranging the furniture. Mixed with the babble was a woman’s voice, directing the allocation of bunk beds, in very clear terms. We slunk into the living room and stood near the telly, Marie still holding Alice, feeling like trespassers in our own home. I was trying to recall, urgently, where I’d left our toy when a pair of hairy, brown legs under a mountain of colourful striped towels, flippers, a snorkel, sun-hats – whatever – walked in. The gear was thrown on a couch, a man turned:
‘Charles Longman,’ I blurted, mouth agape, a flicker across my stomach. ‘Wow, haven’t seen you for, well, how long?’ I knew exactly. I was twelve, skinny, shy, at the same school, when my older brother, Greg invited some mates, including Charles, to our house for a pool party. Charles was big and strong and he just kept dunking me, holding me under again and again. It was nothing, I guess, looking back, just harmless play really, but back then, I hated him for it. After that, whenever he came over, I’d retreat to my room and stay away. From him, from all of them. I told my brother that I hated Charles and he, kind of, settled me down.
‘My God!’ Charles said, clearly forgetting my name. ‘What are you doing here?’
We stood between a wandering soccer ball and a half-built (or battle-damaged, hard to tell) Lego spaceship, and stared at each other. I forgot to breathe, my right hand holding my left shoulder. He hadn’t changed much: still tall, barrel-chested with a clean-cut face and lamentably weak chin that disappeared into his voice box, somehow. Then a pretty, painted woman in dark blue shorts and white t-shirt emerged from a bedroom – our bedroom. She shut the door and looked at Marie, Alice and me. I got that old, familiar feeling as she looked anxiously at Charles, manicured finger nails against her temple, as if shielding herself from some off-the-planet monstrosity.
‘Are you… well I’m Charles’, he said, nodding at Marie, triggering my last memory of him, at my brother’s wedding. ‘And who’s this?’ smiling at Alice.
‘This is Marie,’ I replied, squeezing her arm, code for: Shut the fuck up. ‘And this little treasure is Alice.’
‘Oh, well… okay, come in,’ he said. ‘I mean, are you staying? We noticed some clothes and things didn’t we darl?’ Darl growled yes, and moved further into the room, wearing twisted compressed lips across her tennis-tanned face. I grinned faintly, and suddenly noticed Marie’s Désiré panties (flaming red, very expensive) displayed on a deep leather couch before an open fireplace. Shit, I thought, those knickers. Marie my precious, really!
‘Oh, this is Grace,’ Charles said. ‘I don’t think you’ve met.’
‘Hi,’ I said, shortly, still refusing to introduce myself, sensing trouble. Let him sort it out, I thought. He HAS forgotten. Doesn’t recognise me.
‘Hello,’ Grace replied, in a small, mean voice. She kept glancing from Charles to the three of us, perplexed. I figured I knew exactly what her problem was.
‘Are you guys staying here then?’ Charles asked again, stroking his barely visible chin, eyebrows crunched together.
‘Well, actually, yes,’ Mariereplied, in her sweetest British voice. ‘Are you? We’re down for the weekend.’
Charles and Grace looked anxiously at each other. She spoke first (for both of them, I gathered) in a clipped, no-nonsense kind of way.
‘We’re here for the weekend, that is, Charles and I and the kids. Our Portsea house’s being renovated.’
‘Oh really, how nice,’ Marie replied, using her sweetest tones. I shot her a glance, willing her to relax. I knew that accent. It said: Take cover.
‘Yes, it’s awfully expensive,’ Grace said, ‘but we need extra bedrooms. My, aren’t you a sweetie.’ She dropped to her knees, offering Alice a cute teddy-bear, wrapped up in red, green and blue ribbons.
‘Alice, say thanks to the nice lady. Alice says she loves it,’ Marie said, holding onto Alice’s shoulders, caressing her hair.
‘Yes, this is John’s house, actually,’ Grace said, a tightly bound pony tail flapping at her right shoulder. Reflects her politics, I guessed. Probably hates Vatican II. Grace climbed off the floor and glanced at her husband.
‘We work together, John and I,’ Charles said. ‘So we get to come here when he’s away. It’s a sort of a company perk.’
Marie, Alice and I just stood there, saying nothing.
‘Don’t you know him?’ Grace said. ‘I mean…’
‘Well, actually, no,not personally,’ I said. ‘You say he owns this house, is that right?’ I glanced at Marie, the faintest smile on my lips, and hooked my good arm into her elbow. But the pretty wife, Grace, got all red and flushed and upset.
‘You must know John. Why on earth are you here if you don’t? This is his house after all.’
‘Grace, honey, please,’ Charles mumbled. ‘There must be some explanation. Let’s just –’
‘Oh, John Westaway, of course,’ Marie blurted, every syllable so precise. ‘Why didn’t you say so. He’s also my boss – sort of.’
Grace and Charles stared hard at Marie while she moved to the couch, sat down, and began to comb Alice’s hair. I caught Marie’s eye, frowned, and inclined my head, just a little. She got onto it, leaning to her left, casually collecting her lingerie. I smiled at her, saying: Yes, my darling, stay cool. Suffer the children.Then, in a moment of inspiration, she threw them at me, giggling like a teenager, and I caught them just as Charles blurted:
‘What did… oh, par-don-me, mind your manners… what did you say, John’s your..?’ obviously unable to associate Marie as John’s employee, let alone as a twenty-something-British-chick-you-share-your-beach-house-with-plus-friend-lover-whatever. I saw his dirty mind struggling. Charles looked totally confused, as if lost in… oh yes, thatJohn, the Gospel-guy, still sitting in his car along with Mathew, Mark and Luke.
‘So, you know John,’ Marie said, ‘and his wife, Joan? She’s in Hobart at the moment,’ looking at me. ‘Well, actually, I’m his au pair – their au pair – for Alice. And yes, they’re sort-of friends of mine. We’re all friends, aren’t we? And John definitely said I could stay here. I can show you his email, if you want, from Japan.’ She reached for her i-phone.
Man oh man, you should have seen their faces. We knew more than they did! I took shelter in a violent coughing fit that triggered more shoulder pain. I recovered, found one of my emergency joints in my pocket and lit up, collapsing onto the couch next to ‘my family’. Charles and Grace, meanwhile, looked askance at the three of us, and then, helplessly, at each other. I passed the joint to Marie.
‘Well, I guess, that’s alright then, isn’t it,’ Charles said. ‘I mean, we can all stay, and enjoy ourselves.’ Grace, meanwhile, was fuming, but before she could speak, I broke in, Charles’ violent dunking swimming through my brain.
‘Yes, I suppose you can,’ I said, ‘I suppose we’ll let you stay. Marie, Alice, speak! Can they stay?’
I glanced at Marie. She looked cool, calm, while Alice, apparently bored with all this squabbling, began to gurgle in Alice-code and tore at Marie’s hair. So I translated.
‘Alice says you can stay, but we’ve got the main bedroom. Marie and I, we like the king bed, if you know what I mean. But you can remove the prayer books, not interested, thanks all the same. Take the back bedroom, if you like. Oh, and sorry about the knickers,’ retrieving them, fondling them. ‘Quite a night, actually.’
‘You people, really, I…’ Grace was seriously upset. ‘Who do you think you are? And you,’ glaring at me. ‘You’re no friend of John’s.’ She stood next to Charles and produced an i-phone.
‘No, but sweetie, helloh? Marie and Alice are,’ I replied.
Marie nodded, saying: ‘Alice needs her lunch,’ and heaved herself off the couch, which stopped Grace for a moment.
‘Well, maybe,’ she said, crossing her arms. ‘But youcan’t stay,’ glaring again at me.
‘No, darling, your knickers are all tangled. Youcan’t stay,’ I replied, ‘and…’
Charles turned to Grace, his voice quavering, breathless. ‘Darling, shush, what are you talking about?’
‘They can’t stay,’ Grace insisted, close to tears. ‘What about the kids? They’re not even… and tomorrow’s Sunday and… they’re sleeping here and… well, that underwear, really… and with that child as well. And that… sex thing! For god’s sake, Michael found it, on ourbed! And he’s seven. How do we explain that?’ She looked desperately at her husband, and hissed: ‘Charles, this is a Christian household. No,’ she said, turning to me, ‘I’m sorry, it’s just not fair. Anyway, the company roster says this is our weekend. You’ll just have to go.’
‘No you’re not,’ I replied, casually. It was a good bit of gear, I felt quite relaxed.
‘Sweetie, you’re not in the least bit sorry,’ I replied. ‘And what about that child?’ glancing at Alice, parked in her pusher while Marie raided the fridge. ‘She needs food. And sleep. You want her out on the street?’
‘That’s your problem,’ Grace replied. ‘I’ve got my kids to look after.’ Then something snapped. ‘I just can’t have you two around the house, it’s too… too embarrassing.’
‘Oh really,’ I jumped up. ‘Don’t be so fucking uptight,’ throwing Marie’s crunched-up knickers at her. ‘Feel free. Might improve your marriage.’ They fluttered in the icy air and fell, unloved, at her feet. ‘Your boys sing in the choir, do they? Careful. Those priests will fuck anything that moves. You read the papers lately?’
This was too much for Charles. ‘Hey, do you mind? That’s my wife you’re talking to.’
‘Pa-lease, Charles, shut the fuck up, you fucking pervert.’ I glowered, sick of them both, his pool-performance flashing before me. He’d obviously forgotten, but I hadn’t. In fact, he had been useful, he had taught me… something… like… grow-up, some people are shit, but you can cope, really. In some weird way, my life, the real me, began right there, aged twelve, fighting with Charles. I glanced at Marie. She was sitting quietly in the kitchen, feeding Alice. Alice was whingeing, thrashing her food with a spoon. She was tired. That made any departure quite impossible.
‘We got here first,’ I said, sternly, ‘and we’re staying, and that’s it. Anyway, I like it down here. I get to upset all sorts of people – like you!’
Silence enveloped the room. Poor Charles looked like he was about to faint. And the little wifey, Grace, was not happy, no way.
‘Don’t you speak to my husband like that,’ she said, tears welling in her eyes. ‘You… and that child, and your… your… friend here, you can all leave. I’m not exposing my kids to your sort.’
‘Expose! Expose! Jesus, you and your Bibles! Go find a life somewhere else, try … try the fucking Vatican. There’s a place – you’ll love Rome. And while you’re there, ask the Pope to ordain women. As priests, yes? You’ll be a great candidate.’
Grace was furious, her mouth quivering, maybe she said a silent prayer, how would I know? Eventually, she collected herself.
‘And this child is John’s daughter?’
‘Yes, Alice Westaway, John’s daughter. And Joan’s,’ Marie announced from the kitchen in a quiet, controlled sort of voice. ‘Seems they’re separated – for this week anyway.’
That’s my Marie. Discreet. Understated. Yet so sharp. Must be something in London’s holy-water.
A strange, electric tension filled the room. We all turned, as if synchronised by some invisible force, towards Marie and Alice. Grace’s face faded to a peculiar ashen white, Charles was wringing his hands, suddenly with nothing to say. Marie was cleaning Alice’s face with a tissue. Finally, Marie spoke, again.
‘Like Jules just said, I look after her when John’s away. He lets me stay here, so I sometimes come down. With Alice that is. And Jules. We’re so much in love.’
Alice responded, gurgling in Alice-speak: ‘Yes, it’s true.’
The room fell quiet again. I snuggled into the couch, the screams of children on a swing outside breaking the silence. But then Grace recovered.
‘No,’ she yelled, ‘you… you shouldn’t even be caring for her, you two.’ She turned to her quaking husband. ‘Charles, there are standards, for god’s sake.’
‘Well, my vote’s with Charles,’ I said, playing the smart-arse, ‘seeing as how we’re part of the family, pretty much.’ But Grace was in another place.
‘If you don’t go, I’ll call the police,’ she hissed, waving her i-phone again.
‘Do that,’ Marie said, as cool as cool. ‘You just do that. That should be very interesting.’
‘Jesus wept,’ Charles grunted. ‘Darling, we need to talk. Let’s go check the kids.’
‘No, you go.’
Marie and Alice joined me on the couch, while Grace, glued to a chair, long legs firmly crossed, attacked her phone, talking flat out about ‘trespassers’ and ‘privacy’ and ‘fighting’ in hysterical tones. Then she made another call, talking to ‘mummy,’ using words like ‘disgusting’ and ‘children’ and ‘rung police.’
Within ten minutes, a cop car arrived, lights flashing. It was very exciting, that bit, just like the telly. There was a polite knock on the door. Charles opened it and two officers stood there, one male, one female, an impressive couple, ready for anything. She, actually, was very cute: tall, young, eyes as blue as blue – and, like, there issomething about a uniform. To their obvious disappointment, ‘anything’, at that moment, was nothing much. We were all just sitting there, glaring at each other, silent as a morgue. Then Grace stood up, I jumped off our couch – and suddenly, all hell broke loose, everybody yelling at once, Marie as loud as anyone. Alice started crying, then Grace also burst into tears, and the officers got more and more confused. I must admit, when the language slipped into ‘Christian values’ and ‘perverting children’ and ‘irresponsible’ and ‘weirdos’ and similar offensive shit, I went mental. I stood up, and spoke directly to officer blue-eyes.
‘I want to make a complaint,’ I announced.
‘You do?’ Grace hissed. ‘What a joke. So do I.’
‘No joke,’ I said. ‘Officer, that man,’ pointing to Charles, ‘he assaulted me when I was kid. Nearly drowned me. Caused me a lot of … well … pain,’ glaring at Charles. ‘And now, he and his Gracie-Grace, and their kids, they’re trespassing. We got here first. Now they won’t leave. Simple. And there’s no time-limits for charging criminals, I know that much.’
Total silence filled the room, again. Even Alice fell quiet as she snuggled into Marie’s arms.
‘You serious?’ the cop replied, glancing at her much older colleague.
‘Yes,’ I said, firmly. ‘He really damaged me. These people…these freaks, they can’t cope, they don’t… they won’t… understand. You get it?’
‘This is rubbish,’ Charles blurted from the back door. Marie and I turned, in unison. ‘Assault? Pain? Officers, they’re trespassing, not us.’
The cops rolled eyes at each other, code for: What a waste of fucking time.
‘Well then,’ the older guy said, taking command. ‘We’ll need to take statements, back at the station. Who’s first?’
‘We’ll go,’ Marie announced. ‘Alice too, I’m sick of this. I’ll just get our things from the bedroom, okay?’
At the cop shop, I gave a short statement though, I admit, I included a long-shot. I mentioned my difficult teen years and how, in my mind, it all started with Charles and that he should be held accountable for all that pain as well. The female officer, Constable Bonner, was really nice, sympathetic, though she noted a big question as to relevance. I understood that, I’ve done Principles of Evidence. But she seemed on-side. She said I should carefully consider whether I wanted to proceed. If so, they’d interview Charles, and my brother, hear their versions. Meanwhile, she said, they’d hold my statement on file.
So that’s how we’ve all ended up sitting in the bus shelter, in the late afternoon, waiting – with Alice, fortunately, asleep in her pusher. I figure that those freaks, Charles and Grace, are still gloating, back at the house, quoting Bible passages at each other – lots to choose from. No doubt Charles and little wifey will explain everything to the police – end of my case. I mean, it was a joke, really. A spur-of-the-moment thing. Actually, I don’t want to think about the whole ridiculous fracas. Brings back too many memories: the anguish and embarrassment, the rejection, those miserable tween years, my coming out. I just want to go home, take my medication and hide, with Marie and Alice. Maybe, back in our share house, we’ll have a glass of something, or a joint, and just go to bed with our toy and never get up.
But really, it’s much nicer at our bus stop. We’ve had a coffee and we’re sort of back where we started with the beach and the sea right behind us, stretching away. A few couples are walking around quietly, just being with each other. A bus will come soon, then we’ll catch a train at Geelong, and be home in no time. Then Marie nudges me.
‘Hey,’ she says.
‘Yeah, you criminal,’ throwing my good arm around her shoulders.
‘Look what I found in theirbag.’
I catch my breath, and stare. It was a toy: just like ours but a different colour, wrapped in a string of rosary beads.
‘You think they’ll tell the cops? Go me for theft? Seriously?’
She’s so cool, my Marie.