15 February 2018

Prologue

She wrapped it up in a blanket and she walked. She walked until her heels were rubbed raw and blisters appeared on the soles of her feet. She left the city and she continued on through the suburbs, past darkened red-brick bungalows with neatly mowed lawns and curtains drawn tight. She put one foot in front of the other until she found a national park. Hectares upon hectares of dense bush. Towering scribbly gums and wattle trees spread wild. She pushed her way through shrubs that scratched at her ankles and branches that lashed at her cheeks. Distant howls mingled with the honeyed sounds of owls hunting possums and snakes. Deep inside, she chose a spot near the slow-moving waters of a narrow creek. The ground was hard but she raked at the clay-like soil with her fingernails, scraping and digging and pushing the dirt aside until a small cavern was formed. Serenaded by a chorus of frogs and cicadas she placed the small bundle inside and covered it over with dirt and twigs.

And then she ran.

The Imposter

‘Mum! MUM!’ The two children screamed at her as she stole five minutes to creep into the bathroom and lock the door. Her kids had been arguing all morning and this was the one place she could demand privacy. Some mothers couldn’t even find peace in there. Recently she’d seen a photo on Facebook of a toddler’s fingers wriggling under the bathroom door, vying for its mother’s attention.

She’d laid down the law from day one with her kids. You don’t need to watch me poop. I don’t care how lonely you are. I don’t care if you want a vegemite sandwich right this second. I don’t care if you’re desperate for me to see the exact scene of The Trolls movie that’s on at the moment – one I’ve seen fifteen times before. Right now, in here, it’s Mummy’s time.

She leaned against the toothpaste smeared sink, signed into her secondary account on Facebook and flicked across to the group. Just being logged in under the fake persona made her breathe a sigh of relief. A gentle calm washed over her. She may have joined with an ulterior motive in mind, but now, this was her alternate reality. Here she was someone else. Here she could shake off everything that defined her. Mother. Wife. Constant care-giver. Her surrounds melted away, the soggy  bathmat  underfoot, the plastic toys stacked on the edge of the bath and the streaked glass of the shower screen that beckoned to be wiped clean

Did she feel any guilt about lying to these women? Yes, of course she did. But it didn’t last.

Those Other Women

'Just being logged in under the fake persona made her breathe a sigh of relief.'

Poppy

Poppy pulled into the driveway of the tall, grey, Harris Park townhouse she rented with her husband. It was a gorgeous summer’s evening and as much as she was loving the warmer months, she wasn’t enjoying the way the back of her blouse was sticking to the car seat. It was too hot to cook so she’d picked up Chinese takeaway on her way home from work. Wontons instead of spring rolls because they were Garret’s favourite. Steamed rice instead of fried because she was ‘making an effort’ to choose healthier options. Beef in black bean sauce plus battered honey chicken because she wasn’t making that much of an effort. Harris Park was only twenty kilometres west of Sydney’s centre, but the drive home from her office in North Sydney usually took more than an hour thanks to traffic. She was ravenous.

She climbed out of the car and immediately realised that the beef and black bean sauce had spilled out of the container and soaked through the paper bag. Poppy carried it carefully out in front, trying not to get the sauce on her white shirt. On the way to the door she noticed that the leaves on the row of hedging lilly pillys they’d planted down the side of the driveway had shrivelled to a crispy brown in the summer heat. She wondered if they would be salvageable.

She struggled to get the keys in the door while holding the leaking bag of Chinese and she was momentarily irritated with Garret for not hearing the jangling sound and coming to give her a hand. When the lock finally yielded, she stepped inside and felt an odd sensation – something was different. She ignored it though, keen to get the Chinese food through to the kitchen before it dripped.

‘Hope you didn’t start cooking,’ she sang out as she stepped out of her heels and padded through to the kitchen in stockinged feet.

Poppy stopped short at the doorway. Garret was sitting at the table, staring up at her, hands clasped in front of him. Beside him was her best friend Karleen, hands identically clasped. The two of them looked like they were on a panel ready to interview her.

Poppy grinned at them. Her birthday was approaching next month. They must have been planning something special for her. Later, she hated that she could have been so naive.

‘Karleen! I didn’t see your car out front. There’s enough if you want dinner,’ she started to gabble, holding the soggy paper bag out in front, ‘provided I haven’t lost too much from the split container.’

‘Poppy, sit down, would you?’ Karleen motioned towards the bench seat opposite.

Poppy wasn’t overly taken aback. That’s what Karleen had always been like. Abrupt and commanding. But Garret’s silence started to worry her. Plus, the fact that he wouldn’t meet her eyes.

Poppy dumped the food on the table and sat. ‘What’s up, guys? Is something wrong?’

‘You have to understand, Poppy,’ Karleen said, her voice even more emphatic than usual as she reached across to put one hand over the top of Poppy’s, her curly hair bouncing around her face, ‘we’re not doing this to hurt you.’

‘Sorry, what is it that I’m supposed to understand?’ Karleen continued as though Poppy hadn’t spoken.

‘And that’s why we want to be as upfront and honest as possible with you.’

‘Sorry,’ Poppy repeated, ‘what exactly are you’re telling me?’ She looked to Garret for clarification, because so far he’d remained quiet, had let Karleen do all the talking.

But he continued to stay silent.

‘It’s not the kind of thing we can control, Poppy,’ Karleen went on. ‘We didn’t mean for this to happen. We just fell, you know?’

A cool burning sensation was making its way up Poppy’s arms. It crept up her neck, it flushed her face.

‘You fell?’ Poppy tried again to catch Garret’s eye, but he wouldn’t look at her, refused to meet her gaze.

‘Yes,’ said Karleen. ‘We fell … in love.’

‘What? Don’t be ridiculous! This is a joke, right?’

‘No, Poppy, this is very, very serious. We’ve been sleeping together. We can’t lie to you anymore.’

Poppy snatched her hand out from under Karleen’s. She glared at her friend, willing her to tell her that it wasn’t true, that it was all a joke – a nasty practical joke – but a joke nonetheless. But instead Karleen simply held her gaze unflinchingly and Poppy was the one who had to break eye contact. She looked down at her trembling hands and saw black bean sauce under her fingernails. She stood and walked over to the sink, turned on the tap and started scrubbing at her fingers, digging under her nails with the dishcloth. A large black blowfly landed on the draining board next to her, twitched its wings and inched towards some crumbs left behind from breakfast. She automatically crouched down to fetch the fly swatter from the cupboard under the sink and then stopped. An image of her chasing a fly around the kitchen while Garret and Karleen waited for her to react to their news crossed her mind and she couldn’t tell if she was on the verge of tears or laughter. It all just felt so absurd. She straightened and saw that the fly was gone.

Karleen and Garret.

Garret and Karleen.

Her best friend and her husband, announcing that they were in love. But Garret didn’t even like Karleen that much. Sure, they got along okay, but more as a matter of convenience, the way any husband gets along with his wife’s best friend. But he also whinged about her to Poppy. Complained if she talked too much when the three of them went to the movies together. Said she had terrible taste in restaurants when she booked dinner for them at the new Mexican place on Arthur Street.

So what, now Poppy was supposed to believe he’d all of the sudden fallen in love with her? It didn’t make any sense. Or had his complaints about Karleen been a ruse?

Karleen appeared behind her then, wrapped one arm around her shoulder and reached out the other to flick on the kettle. ‘Here, Poppy, I’ll make you a cup of peppermint tea,’ she said, as if tea was going to fix everything.

Poppy squirmed out of Karleen’s hold and backed away from her, placing one hand on the smooth rounded edge of the laminate bench to steady herself. Inside, she was tumbling. Tumbling and rolling and falling and crashing. Inside, she couldn’t breathe.

But on the outside, she remained still. She couldn’t find the right words, didn’t know what to say. So instead she simply watched as Karleen casually went through her cupboards to grab the mugs and tea bags. In truth, Poppy understood that the only reason Karleen knew her kitchen so well was because she was her best friend, but now it felt like her familiarity in Poppy’s home was a result of her relationship with Garret, and that betrayal felt much, much worse than the sexual deception.

For a moment, Poppy saw herself spinning around on the spot, snatching hold of one of the blue and white herringbone patterned mugs Karleen had pulled out of the cupboard and swinging her arm as hard and as fast as possible to crack that mug against Karleen’s skull.

Of course, she wouldn’t actually do that. But God how she wanted to. Poppy turned away and caught sight of her own reflection in the window above the kitchen sink. Her neat blonde hair, parted in the middle and scraped back into a short, low ponytail – the same way she wore it every single day. Boring. I look like a boring, middle-aged woman who gets up every morning, does her hair the same way, wears the same smart office wear, goes to the same job, comes home in the afternoon, watches the same television shows, goes to bed at the same time only to get up and do it all again. Now she wished she could smash the mug against the head of the woman in the window instead.

She felt irritated then. Irritated that she was directing all her anger at Karleen or inwards at herself when Garret was the one who’d cheated. When Garret was the one who’d betrayed his marriage vows. And she felt frustrated. Frustrated that she didn’t get to tell him it was over. That she didn’t get to throw his clothes on the front lawn. It was all too much to take in. Too much to process in one hit.

Maybe it would have been easier if it had happened like a scene in a movie. If she’d sprung them in bed together. Found them with the sheets a tangled mess around them. Karleen scrambling to find her bra. Garret gathering the bedclothes around himself, covering up his junk self-consciously. The telltale sticky wet patch between the two of them. At least that would have given her some satisfaction – the chance to be self-righteously indignant. The right to yell and scream and kick him out. It would have spurred her into action, instead of this weird, polite, tea-drinking confrontation they’d concocted.

Poppy gripped the benchtop harder. She looked over at Garret, who was staring resolutely down at the table.

‘How long?’

Karleen didn’t hesitate to step in with an answer. ‘Four months.’

‘I’m not asking you, I’m asking my husband,’ Poppy snapped.

‘He’ll only tell you the same thing.’

She kept her back to Karleen. ‘Here?’ she asked, her voice rising as she spoke. ‘Did you fuck her here in this house, Garret? In our bed?’

‘Poppy, please,’ Garret whispered.

She pushed past Karleen and strode out of the room. She took the stairs two at a time, opened their bedroom door and stood still at the foot of the bed.

There were no rumpled sheets. No indents in the pillows. She leaned down and touched her fingertips to the covers, and then she realised. These were fresh sheets. They’d had sex here, today, and afterwards they’d changed the sheets. Made the bed with neat hospital corners. Was she supposed to be appreciative? She looked across at her bedside table, saw the open novel face down where she’d placed it last night when her eyes had become too tired to continue reading. It was a thriller, which Garret had read first and she’d rolled over under the covers and prodded him in the arm. ‘I’m up to the bit where you realise the guy from the coffee shop is the same one the girl is dating but she hasn’t figured it out yet.’

‘Getting to the good stuff,’ he’d said sleepily.

‘You want to get up to some good stuff right now?’

‘Raincheck babe? Half asleep already.’

She wanted to reach back through time to the previous evening, grab hold of her own shoulders and shake. How many times had he asked for a raincheck? How many times had he avoided any kind of physical contact with her, turned away from her at night? And she’d had no idea there was anything wrong. She’d thought it was a normal part of marriage. You went through dry spells. Things became complacent, you took your relationship for granted. How many warning signs had she missed?

She backed out of the room and headed down the stairs. But on the bottom step she grasped hold of the banister, sunk to the floor and let the tears fall. She cried silently, desperate that Garret and Karleen not hear her.

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