It was the broken-resolution end of January already, and Sandy was sitting in the kitchen drinking decaffeinated coffee with her oven’s green, digital-clock display panel flashing, if you could believe it, HELP HELP HELP instead of the time. Last night, full of the beady-eyed purpose a late-night joint always gave her, she’d stood there trying to reprogram it to bring the clock back without making the bloody oven alarm go off, pressing and fiddling and relighting the stub of her roach, until finally she’d sworn at it and given up.
So now it was signalling her for help. Her oven, for crying out loud. An appliance.
And even though she couldn’t fix the timer, the clock still ran with a snickering whirr, a nasty little calibrated sound of time mouse-wheeling itself determinedly away, even if she was sitting here marooned in the long slack middle of the afternoon, picking hard candle wax off the tablecloth and waiting for the caffeine rush that would never come.
Sandy raised the mug awkwardly in her left hand and took another sip. She was right-handed but her friend Alison had made these mugs on her new pottery wheel a few years back and Sandy had loyally bought them, and there were fragments of grit embedded in a dribble of glaze on the other side, just at the point where you sipped. Just one little gravelly flake of grit, but enough to drive you nuts. It was hard enough picking the things up with the lumpy handles Alison had stuck on. Proletariat cups, Sandy would think as she washed them roughly in the sink, hoping to break one so that she could justifiably throw it out. Nothing would kill them. They were made to withstand a revolution.
She’d recognised the handwriting as soon as she’d fished the envelope out of the mailbox, felt that little twisting jump of tension. No return address, of course. And inside, just a postcard, one of those free ones you get in coffee shops, with his message scribbled on the back.
Would like to ring Sophie for her fifteenth birthday. Please let her know. I’ll call around 6.30 your time. Hope life is treating you well. And a mobile number. That was all. As if he was paying by the bloody word.
Was life treating her well? Sandy frowned, lifted a splatter of candle wax with her fingernail from the batik cloth. Everybody seemed finally to have accepted resignedly that this was the state of play, she thought: you let life happen to you. In it came like a party-crasher, ignoring any plans you might have had for yourself, and treated you to whatever it had in mind.
And you just sat there and took it. Nobody ever said, for example, how have you been treating your life? which made you sound a bit less passive, at least. Maybe that could be the start of an article, something she could write for the community-centre newsletter, or even the local paper.
Did he really have to be so terse, even in a postcard? Not that his brusqueness surprised her — that was Richard all over, exactly as she remembered. Hope life is treating you well would be just what she would have expected — one of a couple of careless, studiously distant sentences as if he’d spoken to her last month instead of about five years ago.
Sandy, in uncharitable moments — and OK, these surfaced occasionally, she was the first to admit — believed that Rich did this on purpose. Whatever he was doing now, and God knows he was evasive enough about that, he made a point of being somewhere exotic around Christmas and Sophie’s birthday, just so he could write things like Greetings from Dharamsala! or Not sure if this will get to you, boat’s not docking in Borneo till next week.
Like this one: 6.30 your time. Please. As if he had to calculate time zones. Like he was going to call from bloody Bhutan.
She hoped the romance was a deliberate, manufactured illusion, hoped he was, in reality, writing from his dead-end job or cramped bedsit. She should have paid attention to the postmarks over the years, except that sometimes Sophie made a point of casually collecting the mail around her birthday and Christmas before she did, so she didn’t have a chance.
She’d laid the whole thing on the line for Sophie, early on.
‘He walked out on us when you were just a tiny baby. So don’t go expecting anything from him. Put him out of your life, like I have.’
And for years Sophie had given her that inscrutable child’s look and shrugged, even though Sandy was sure she kept all those cards, with their pathetically non-committal messages, hidden away somewhere. Hanging onto something. Some possibility. And then last year, when Sophie had been turning a scary fourteen, she’d stunned her by saying, ‘If you’ve put him out of your life, why are you always talking about him?’
She had felt herself blustering, hot suddenly. ‘I don’t.’ ‘Yes, you do.’ ‘No, I don’t.’ ‘You do. When all your friends are here. You’re all shouting to get a word in about who’s got the worst ex.’ Just trying to get under her skin about something that was patently untrue. Sandy imagined all those cards somewhere, wrapped up in a box under a journal, maybe. Although Sophie had become so coolly cynical this last year it was hard to imagine any shred of sentiment surviving; it would be hanging on like a tiny gasping plant, clinging by its roots to a crack in the barren rock face of withering teenage contempt. Maybe she’d thrown away the lot. Maybe she’d incorporated them into some weird art installation at school, lying slyly in wait for Sandy to come across at the next parent–teacher night.
And she would have to smile brightly, her face stiff with mortification, and pretend she knew all about it. She was still getting over innocently strolling into the IT lab last term and having the teacher enthusiastically show her the website Sophie ran from her school computer ... no, not website, one of those blog things: BigPage, or MyFace, or whatever it was called.
A wildly popular site, apparently. A cluster of teachers had stood around her, enthusing.
‘She’s brilliant, really,’ the headmaster had said excitedly, clicking away with the mouse. ‘Such a thinker, and such a subversive sense of humour, wouldn’t you say?’, and he’d brought up Sophie’s blog. And smiling, still wondering what, exactly, he meant by subversive, Sandy saw that it was called My Crap Life.
‘This has had thousands of hits,’ the headmaster was saying. ‘Even the staff read it each week. And the goth twist is what makes the whole thing so exceptional.’
‘Emo goth,’ corrected the IT teacher, mystifyingly, leaning proprietarily over the back of the ergonomic chair.
Sandy nodded, grimly trying to memorise the web address. ‘She’s certainly full of surprises,’ she said faintly. There was Sophie’s face on the screen, indisputably hers, glowering out from under a curtain of black fringe, so it must have been true. Fourteen years old, and this other life going on, a secret parallel universe served up here now in a fait accompli, something for Sandy to accidentally stumble across when it was all too late.
Like that tattoo. Sandy remembered the shock of first glimpsing it, the sensation of the rug being smartly whipped out from under her. Not even a nice tattoo either, the sort that she herself had contemplated — those cute butterflies in the small of the back, say, or a Celtic band honouring your cultural heritage or some small, significant endangered flower on the ankle.
No, Sophie’s tattoo was pushing heavy metal, like an AC/DC album cover.
They’d been sitting at a barbecue, and Sandy’s eyes had wandered over to her daughter’s shoulders just as Sophie had leaned forward to pick up her drink. It was a hot day and she’d uncharacteristically taken off her black hoodie, leaving her bare pale neck and shoulders exposed. Sandy’s heart jumped into her throat and hammered there a few times. Oh Jesus, it couldn’t be permanent, could it? It was illegal to tattoo a minor, she was sure of it. Wasn’t it?
‘Oh my God, what’s that? Sophie?’
‘What’s what?’ Sophie turned around, her jet-black hair scraping against her singlet. What did she put in it, glue?
‘You know perfectly well. That thing on your back.’
Her daughter took a swallow of Diet Coke before answering, and Sandy watched her eyes flutter closed, as she gulped, through the thick sweep of black eyeliner.
‘It’s only a temporary tat,’ she’d said wearily.
‘Thank God for that. I thought for a minute ... Sweetheart, what induced you to stick that on there? And what on earth is it? A bat?’
Sophie pulled the singlet down with her black-painted fingernails. ‘I’m trying out what I’m going to get when I turn eighteen, OK? So calm down. It’s just a bird.’
Spread wingtip to wingtip between her shoulder blades. That pale delicate flesh that she remembered pressing her face to countless times when Sophie was a baby, inhaling that scent of innocence and ayurvedic soap, that skin she’d kept so carefully from sunburn and injury. Now her daughter was planning to scar it indelibly with a ... black carrion bird.
‘You’ve got to be kidding. A crow? Right across your back like that, as if you’re some kind of ... bikie’s moll?’
That slow-motion, long-suffering blink again. Where did she get that sneering contempt?
‘Take a chill pill, will you? I told you I wouldn’t do it permanently till I was eighteen.’
‘As if those studs through your eyebrow aren’t enough.’ A snort of laughter. ‘Jesus, Mum, you sound like Grandma.’ That shut her up. Made her stand, suddenly, and go over to refill her wineglass at the trestle table, then wander shakily to another seat under a tree where friends were having a long and circuitous conversation about the local council. She did sound like her mother, awful to admit. More and more, when she forgot herself, that voice came rising out of her own throat, Janet even down to the querulous inflections. Please God, not that noble self-martyrdom next. Anything but that.
My Crap Life. Honestly, when had Sophie ever wanted for a single thing in her whole life? You did your best, you were everything to your kids your own parents weren’t, you put them first in everything, and they still thought their lives were crap. Their lives were paradise, she thought bitterly, picking at the red wax.
Her mother’s voice burbled faintly but persistently out of the ether telling her to warm up the iron and find some absorbent paper and do the job properly, and Sandy tuned her out before she could go on to add that there was still a load of wet clothes in that machine that would soon be starting to mildew and a vinegar rinse would get that smell out but why let it happen in the first place?
When are you going to shut up, Sandy whispered savagely to the hovering apparition of her mother standing in the doorway delivering this litany, and just leave me alone? The apparition turned stiffly on its orthopedic heel with the outraged offence that would take months to repair, if this was real life.
Here she was, an intelligent woman with a daughter almost fifteen and she still felt — with that small, landslide jolt of shock when she glimpsed herself in the mirror sometimes — that she hadn’t yet quite gotten her own life started. As if she was still waiting here in Ayresville, her foot patiently hovering on the accelerator, for her chance to get going. She’d do it soon, though. She’d enrol in something, once Soph had finished school, and didn’t need her there every day. Something that would bring all her short courses together, all her skills areas. Alternative medicine, maybe. Or comparative philosophies.
For goodness sake, snapped the spectre of her mother impatiently, as it clicked out of the house in its sensible shoes, stop your moping around and get up and do something; it’s disgraceful.