Celebrations

Below is my instalment for  March on the 12 Short Stories website. The prompt this month was a celebration and the word count 2500 words. The setting I chose for this story was inspired by a number of social gatherings I attended early in the New Year at the height of the Australian Summer. The searing temperatures are thankfully behind us now as we enjoy the deliciousness of Autumn/Fall weather and the feeling of promise it always brings…

The younger nephews and nieces hit balloons at each other, pale pink and powder blue. It’s 47C outside. The pool on the property is out of bounds today – it’s too far to walk in the heat. So everyone is staying in with the air con on, the thick curtains drawn.

I peep out the window between a slit in the cream coloured fabric. The Liquidamber trees look anorexic in the shimmering haze. It’s brother Gus’s birthday and the family has gathered to celebrate. Though there is a palpable weariness in the room – post-Christmas exhaustion, the weather. Polite conversation is going to be more difficult than usual.

Daisy and I don’t stop for coffee on the long drive up from the city. We both agree it’s too hot even for coffee.

I stand at the perimeter of people, surveying the chaos. The balloons lend a sense of occasion, as does the tiered display of cupcakes in the middle of the main table. Someone’s put the TV on mute; a football game is playing on the screen.

We all bring too many BBQ chickens, knowing that our host, younger brother Angus can feed his big brood of children with the leftovers later, when we are safely back at home on the couch with Netflix and a chilled glass of wine.

Angus says: ‘I’m looking forward to going back to work tomorrow.’

He’s been house dad to his army of kids for two weeks now. I smile at his honesty and pipe ‘I bet you are!’

I look around at the incongruous crowd, tied together by blood. There’s the sister who will escape the people and the conversation to go outside for a cigarette, even in this heat. Someone is missing, but I can’t recall their name. A headache begins to take hold; I try to ignore it but it interferes with my thoughts.

The elder nieces and nephews, teenagers and 20something-year-olds, have claimed their own table and are busy sharing their stories: last night’s activities, social media posts on phones, their studies and travel plans. Daisy has joined them. She’s given herself over to the young clan; not my loyal daughter again until the trip home when she will look out the window, sharing a comfortable silence, exhausted from the close proximity of so many cousins.

Great Grandpa is benignly looking down on the noisy fray from his vantage point inside a picture frame near the fireplace. He is a teenager himself in the photo, dressed in his fighter pilot leather, standing proud and erect next to a plane. Though I have seen this photograph many times over I notice for the first time the hint of wisdom in his look, despite his youth. I see his forehead present within this noisy group, and occasionally his eyes.

Angus, baby Josephine on hip, summons us to eat. His wife Suzie is feeding the younger ones, between sips of cold beer, a calm ship amidst all the activity. She has set up a small table and chairs away from the big furniture and longer limbed people. I am reminded of my dolls house I had as a child; tiny pieces of everyday life miraculously fashioned from wood.

The salad runs out early, people preferring it to the rich looking potato bake on such a hot day. Sturdy and sensible sister-in-law Maeve is arse up rummaging in the fridge. She produces a lettuce, pulls it apart and chops a cucumber, hastily adding them both to the near-empty bowl.

The grandma present, Teresa, announces: ‘I should have left the anchovies out. Kids don’t like anchovies.’

I position myself at the elders’ table, with brothers and sisters-in-law, the grandparents. Someone asks ‘where’s Esther?’ I chastise myself for not commenting on my little sister’s absence until now, for not being able to recall her name earlier.

‘Perhaps she’s escaped to a bedroom to breastfeed the baby?’

My other brother, Gus replies: ‘Baby’s got colic. Said she couldn’t come. Been up all night.’

‘Who hasn’t?’ I hear myself muttering then chastise myself again, for being so uncharitable.

Daisy and I decide to look in on her on the drive home; she’s keen to hold her new six-week-old cousin Rory. I imagine his tiny feet and hands, his soft perfect skin. And how precious he is.

My train of thought is interrupted by movement under the table, something brushes my leg. I jump up. It’s four year old Marcus with a cockatoo feather he found in the driveway. I laugh at the unexpectedness of it; at his delightful little face looking up at me. It starts to furrow when Angus booms:

‘Get out from under there.’

‘It’s ok, I don’t mind,’ I say feebly.

The conversation about Esther resumes at the grown-ups table. ‘Thank goodness that Felix bloke is out of her life now. What a drop-kick.’ There is muttered agreement from the group.

Teresa asks: ‘what happened?’

‘Gambling problem. Esther chucked him out before the baby was born. She couldn’t cope with it anymore. Even nicked her credit card.’

‘Oh dear’ Theresa clucks, ‘a difficult time all round for her then.’

We all sing a fractured off-key version of Happy Birthday to Uncle Gus; he beams in reply. There are tears from a few sugar-high, tired children. It’s our cue to leave.

*

Daisy and I pull into Esther’s driveway, the crunch of tyre on gravel announcing our arrival.

It’s quiet. Good – the baby’s settled, I think to myself.

Prising our bodies from our car seats, sticky with sweat, we emerge from the hot vehicle. I immediately sense that something is wrong.

Our feet crunching the gravel sound ominous in the quiet.

We reach the front door. I call out: ‘Esther darling are you at home?’

Daisy replies: ‘Mum, maybe they are sleeping. Perhaps we should not disturb them.’

‘We’re here now. We may as well check.’

The screen door is unlocked so we let ourselves in. It’s dark inside the house and noticeably cooler than Angus’s place. Esther’s black cat Shadow prances up the hallway; the last thing we see of him is his tail in the shape of a question mark.

We reach the lounge room. Esther is sitting on the couch, head in hands, her hair dishevelled. She has been crying. I crouch down next to her, take her hands gently away from her face.

‘What’s the matter? How’s the baby?’ I try to keep my voice calm, even. My mouth is dry. I feel wretched all of a sudden.

‘Felix took him out two hours ago. Said he wanted to show him to his sister who is here from New Zealand. I said it’s too hot for Rory to leave the house. I have the portable air conditioner set up in his room so that we could get the temperature down. Felix was insistent – as usual. Said Rory is his son too. I said ok but only for an hour as he may need a feed. He hasn’t been drinking much so he could be hungry again now.’

The tears return. She looks hollowed out, exhausted.

‘That bastard’, I hear myself saying. ‘Daisy – you stay here with Esther. Get her some cold water and make her a cup of tea and something to eat. I’m going round to his place. And calling the police first. What’s his address?’

*

Felix has moved in with his brother whose flat is on the ground floor, just two blocks away from Esther. I walk around the perimeter, knocking on doors, windows, calling his name.

A guy in a black t-shirt is leaning over the balcony from his floor above.

‘Think they are at the pub.’

‘Which fucking pub?’ I surprise myself at my anger.

‘Hang on. Don’t need to get shirty. He seems a nice enough guy. Keeps to himself mostly.’

‘Yes, but there is a 6 week old baby with him and I need to find him urgently.’

‘Shit. Ok. It’s three blocks from here. Do you want me to show you? I know how to get there but don’t recall the name or the street.’

I make a split decision based on what I see: someone with a caring tone who wants to help.

‘Ok come on then.’

We race to the pub; I’m driving like a madwoman, grateful that Daisy isn’t with me to witness it, as I am always telling her to slow down when she is behind the wheel.

It’s a nice enough looking pub, not that I spend much time thinking about it. My heart is beating hard in my chest.

We both march into the cool, dark interior that smells of stale beer and damp carpet.

I see Felix at the poker machine straight ahead and make a beeline for him. He gives me one of his hapless smiles when he recognises me. I think briefly to myself: what did she ever see in him?

‘You scared the shit out of Esther. She’s beside herself. Where’s Rory?’

‘Over there’ – he points to an empty pram and my heart stops. My companion lightly touches my arm and I follow his gaze to a group of women I don’t recognise. They are ooh-ing and aah-ing at the fidgety little bundle being passed around.

I snatch Rory from the woman holding him and say with as much authority as I can muster, despite my shaky voice:’ I’m his aunty and I’m taking him home to his mother’.

‘Well, I’m his aunty too.’

We eye each other. The stranger in front of me is about my height, with gentle eyes. I am overwhelmed with pity at this situation, fighting for the rights to such a tiny child. She looks over to Felix at the pokies; he nods his dissent.

We bundle Rory and the pram up. In a moment of clarity, I see myself doing this with Daisy’s pram when we have been visiting people, twenty years ago. Rory is starting to feel warm and his cheeks are red.

Once the pram is in the boot I say: ‘Shit. I don’t have a baby cradle in my car. I’m sorry but you may have to come with me. And hold the baby.’

‘Ok.’ I get a sideways look at my helper. He is actually quite handsome, Spanish origin perhaps? Brown eyes and a neat stubble on his chin.

We tear off to Esther’s place.

There is a police siren behind us. I stop.

Rory is roaring now in that piercing primal way new babies do, telling the world that something is up.

The policewoman is at my window. ‘Mam, what are you doing with a baby in the car and no child restraint? And I registered that you were doing 10k over the speed limit. This is a residential area.’

I realise that I don’t even know the name of the guy sitting next to me, responsibly holding my precious little nephew. He has put his finger into Rory’s mouth, who is fiercely sucking at it.

I feel a long way from my couch and the cold glass of wine I’d been thinking of.

‘Look, we have just rescued this baby from an irresponsible adult. We are returning him to his very distraught mother. My name is Felicity Faulkner. I am his aunty’. I show her my drivers licence.

‘Ok, I’ll escort you.’

We deliver Rory back home accompanied by the police car. There is another one parked on the street when we get to Esther’s.

When we drive into her driveway my passenger gingerly hands the baby to me. ‘I’ll stay out here under the shade. Name’s Claude by the way.’

‘You know mine now. Thanks for your help. I’ll give you a lift home.’

‘That would be good. Don’t suppose you want to join me for a drink? I’ve just had some positive news today. My cancer is all clear. I feel like celebrating. I wouldn’t normally tell such things to a stranger, but after today I feel like it’s ok to share this with you.’

I am taken aback by his candour. ‘I may need to get back to my sister. I’m a bit worried about her.’

‘How about tomorrow night then?’

Laughing at his eagerness I reply: ‘I don’t exactly live nearby.’

‘Let’s meet somewhere that’s halfway. Here’s my card. Call me if you feel like it tomorrow.’ The card states that he is a music teacher.

*

Back inside Esther’s house, the mood feels lighter. She is celebrating also, now that Rory is back with her. We decide to stay the night, seeing as it’s still the weekend. Daisy is pleased. I want to show my sister some support, especially if Felix turns up again.

Esther cautions: ‘You could have a rough night – Rory may wake you.’

I respond: ‘That’s ok, we’ll cope for one night. It’s been too hot to sleep anyway. Let’s order some take-out. Do you have any wine in the fridge? I’ll ask Daisy to walk up to the shop on the corner if not’.

Daisy also buys us both a toothbrush.

*

It’s a rough night on the sofa bed. We keep rolling into the middle together. Though we must have dozed off at some stage, as neither of us can remember Esther walking around the house after midnight, trying to settle Rory. I also can’t get Claude out of my head and decide to call him the next morning. ‘I’m still in the area. We decided to stay over at my sister’s. How about a coffee? Tell me where to meet you.’

I panic when I see the state I’m in, in the bathroom mirror. Stupid! Why did I offer to meet him looking like this? I douse myself in the shower, blow dry my hair for the first time in a long time, thinking to myself he better be worth the effort.

Fortunately, Esther isn’t too precious about sharing her make up. We prepare her some breakfast and I leave her, Daisy and Rory for their walk to the nearby park now that the weather is cooler while I go to meet Claude.

He is sitting by the window in the Blue Bird Cafe, freshly preened himself. He smells of wood-smoke and cloves. I breathe him in. There is a shyness in him today, which renders him more attractive.

We talk for an hour, words flowing freely. About work, families, divorce, travel. Turns out he is a great cook. He wants to make me his signature paella dish next time.

‘Next time?’ I laugh flirtatiously.

When we part outside the cafe he kisses me fully on the lips, squeezes both my hands and says: ‘You are beautiful.’

I grin all the way back to Esther’s house, checking my face in the rear mirror when I stop at the traffic lights. Smiling back is a woman with something to celebrate.

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