Out of the Ashes

Can a new love be born out of the ashes of an old love gone wrong? This is the dilemma Marian must face when Russell comes back into her life after abandoning her for a job in New York.

 

Chapters

 

One

Two

Three

Four

 

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

 

Nine

Ten

Eleven

 

One

 

Christmas Eve, 2002, Bourke Street Mall, Melbourne

 

It was the shock of red hair that caught his attention. It was curly and a deep auburn. Her skin was alabaster and her long-lashed eyes sky blue.

What a little sweetie, Russell thought.

Intent on the buckle at her waist, she was oblivious to the heat and the press of Christmas shoppers around her. Occasionally she would raise her eyes to glance across the tramlines at the department store opposite, but Myer’s famous Christmas windows were invisible behind a phalanx of heads.

Suddenly the buckle came apart. With a covert glance behind her, she got up and ran towards him. Russell stepped forward and swept her up into his arms, holding her close. Bells crashing frantically, heavy electric motor whirring, a tram lumbered past them barely an arm’s length away.

‘Hey, kiddo, where do you think you’re going? Didn’t you see the tram coming?’ He squatted and placed the squirming child on her feet. The little girl gazed at him wide-eyed and mute. Amid the gasps and cries of the shoppers around him, he could hear one voice shouting, ‘Alice! Alice!’

‘Are you Alice?’

The child nodded.

Her face ashen, a woman staggered towards them, dragging behind her a pusher laden with her Christmas shopping. She bent over and took the child by the shoulder. ‘Don’t ever run away from me like that, ever! Do you hear me?’

Alice was defiant. ‘I want to see the windows. You promised I could see the windows!’

‘Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry.’ The mother let go her burden and gathered the child up in her arms, burying her face in the red curls that contrasted starkly with her own black hair.

Automatically, Russell shot out a hand and stopped the pusher from crashing to the ground and shattering whatever was in all those plastic bags. For a moment he stood at a loss, holding onto this strange woman’s pusher, then she raised her face to him. She seemed about to say something, to thank him, when her strained pallor turned a sudden red.

He felt the blood drain from his own face. ‘Marian?’

She just looked at him, the child wriggling in her arms.

‘It is Marian, isn’t it? ’

Marian nodded, then reached for the pusher. ‘I’ve got to… I’d better…’

‘Here, let me.’ Russell squatted, helping to get Alice’s reluctant legs into the right openings and to find which ends of the harness went with which buckle.

His composure regained, Russell stood and looked at Marian over the child’s head. Her large brown eyes were avoiding his.

Marian took the handles in a firm grip. ‘I’ve got to get going.’ She tilted the pusher to turn it.

Russell blocked her path. ‘Wait. After all this time, is that it?’

Marian looked past him, her face still grey.

‘You’ve had a shock. You need to sit down for a minute, at least. How about a cup of coffee?’

‘I can’t…’

‘Please. There’s a coffee shop right here.’ He pointed down a slate-paved laneway lined with tables and chairs. ‘What about you, Alice? Would you like a drink?’

‘Orange juice,’ Alice declared.

Russell looked at Marian. ‘Well?’

Marian eyed him narrowly, then turned the pusher into the lane and let him settle her at a table.

‘What would you like? A short black? And orange juice for Alice?’

Marian barely nodded and Russell went into a coffee shop, all the time keeping an eye on them, afraid Marian would bolt at any moment.

He brought out two espresso coffees and orange juice in a tetra pack. He watched as Marian threaded the straw into the carton with shaking hands and took a few sips before handing it to Alice. She had changed little from how he remembered her. She was still as beautiful and still as unaware of it.

‘How have you been?’ he asked when Alice was settled and Marian had begun to sip her coffee, colour coming back into her cheeks.

‘All right, I suppose.’

‘What have you been doing? Married? Working?’

‘Working. And you? How was New York?’

Russell shrugged. ‘Hectic.’

‘How long have you been back?’

‘A few months.’

‘Was it good for your career?’

‘Yeah. I guess so.’

Marian picked up her coffee cup. Russell took another sip from his own. He’d forgotten its sharp bite.

‘When are we going to see the windows, Mamma?’ Alice demanded.

Marian sighed. ‘I told you, sweetie, not today. There are too many people today. We’ll come back another time.’

‘I want to go now!’ Alice tossed down her orange juice in protest.

Russell bent to retrieve it and held it out to her. Alice folded her arms and shook her head. His niece Betsy had had just such a tantrum last time he had seen her. His brother attributed her temper to her red hair just like her uncle’s, although she had her father’s mild blue eyes. Russell felt a shudder of realisation pass through him. When he looked up, Marian was watching him, her taut expression unreadable.

‘Strange,’ he said, his mouth dry. ‘Her red hair.’

‘We’ve got red hair in our family, too,’ Marian said hastily. ‘My grandfather’s nick-name was Ginger.’

‘And the blue eyes?’

Marian’s dark eyes avoided his. ‘Some of my cousins are quite fair.’

‘Mamma, I want to see the windows,’ Alice whined.

Marian started to stand. Russell reached out and held the pusher still. ‘How old are you, Alice?’

‘Three,’ Marian interjected.

‘No, I’m not,’ Alice protested. ‘I’m four. I’m a big girl. I’m in big kindy.’

Marian grasped the handles. ‘I’ve got to go…’

Manoeuvring the pusher delayed her long enough for Russell to get a card out of his pocket and offer it to her. ‘If you need anything…’

Marian glared at him. ‘Not from you. Not anymore.’ She propelled the pusher towards Bourke Street and plunged back into the crowd of Christmas shoppers.

Russell watched her disappear. He sat down again at the table and stared at its stained surface. Reaching into his inside pocket he got out his mobile phone, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember her surname.

 

Two

 

Marian was halfway home on the train before she remembered that she hadn’t bought a Christmas present for her mother after all. She would have to try to find something in one of the new boutiques near the station.

Freed from her restraints, Alice was running up and down the carriage, jumping up on the occasional empty seat and finger-painting on the dirty windows. Sensing disapproving looks from a pair of immaculately coiffed dames, Marian called Alice to her and lifted her onto her lap. Sated perhaps, Alice sat still and let her mother hold her close for a few moments.

Marian buried her face in Alice’s red curls, so alien to her family, and felt again her blood run cold and her stomach lurch when she saw Alice run towards that tram, and lurch again when she recognised her rescuer. Unbidden, images she had worked hard to bury came back to her, of a tall, slim young man who looked gorgeous in a tailored suit and even better out of it, of a slow smile that constricted her heart, of deep grey eyes that seemed to cloud as he drifted away somewhere when he thought she wasn’t watching.

Of all the people in the Mall that day, why did it have to be Russell Braddon? He was supposed to be in New York shopping on Fifth Avenue, not Bourke Street.

Alice began squirming again. Marian propped her on her knees in front of the window and set her to counting yellow cars. Alice’s chirruping washed over her as she gave in to her memories just this once. Tomorrow, life would go back to normal.

 

 

She had first seen Russell in a crowded bar where Julie was celebrating a business coup. Observing the room, red wine in hand, she felt totally out of place amongst the tailored suits and flimsy dresses. She was not at all associated with Julie’s business life, but reversing her self-imposed social isolation had become a project of Julie’s recently. Marian would rather be at a concert, or watching a film, even alone, than hovering on the margins of such a crowd.

‘You won’t get anywhere standing there.’ Julie was the perfect corporate woman in her olive-green power suit and thick chestnut hair cut in a severe bob. The two of them had gone on very different paths since their university days. Marian’s own career was languishing in the lower ranks of the public service.

‘I don’t know any of these people,’ Marian said.

‘That’s what parties are for, to meet new people. Look at all those gorgeous men.’

‘I’m looking.’

‘And you’re not tempted to do more?’

‘I’ve told you before. I prefer my men on celluloid. They never change, they’re always available when you need them, and you never have to pick up their smelly socks.’

‘But they don’t keep you warm at night.’

‘That’s what electric blankets are for.’

‘I bet you could get any of these men if you put your mind to it.’

‘Please, Julie. I’m invisible to these people.’

‘How do you know that?’

‘Experience. I’m over thirty, I’m no Michelle Pfeiffer, and I don’t have the money to make up for it.’

Julie put on her stern face. ‘OK. That’s enough of that. It’s a bet. Fifty dollars says you can do it. Pick one, any one.’

‘It’ll be the easiest fifty dollars I’ve ever made.’ Marian surveyed the room for the biggest challenge she could find. Rather young and the best-looking man there, he was flirting with a wispy blonde. ‘I’ll have that one.’

‘Well, I like your taste,’ Julie said. ‘That’s Russell, the merchant banker who put the finances together. Gorgeous, intelligent and charming. You’re a goner. Come with me.’

Before Marian could protest that she was only joking, Julie had taken her elbow and was leading her through the throng to where Russell stood, momentarily by himself. He looked almost guilty to be caught loosening his tie and undoing the top button of his shirt.

Up close, Marian could see that his roughly chiselled features were softened by deep grey eyes fringed by long red lashes, and his hair, which seemed brown in the distance, was actually a dark auburn and cut short to keep in check tight curls.

‘Marian is one of my oldest friends,’ Julie was saying. ‘We were at uni together.’

Russell turned an earnest smile on her that caught Marian unawares and awoke an ache in her that made her want to run away but kept her rooted to the spot.

‘What did you study?’

‘L-languages. French and Italian. And history.’

Russell beamed at her. ‘I’d love to speak French. I was in France last year and it’s true, you know. If you don’t speak French they won’t give you the time of day.’

‘I didn’t have any trouble,’ Marian found herself saying. ‘The French were lovely with me.’

‘My point exactly. Where did you go? Paris?’

‘Of course. And Brittany. Did you go there?’

‘I would have liked to, but I didn’t have the time.’

Neither of them noticed Julie slip away.

When the blonde returned from the ladies’ room, they were discussing the Louvre. ‘You don’t mean to tell me,’ Marian gasped, ‘that you saw the Mona Lisa, but you didn’t see the Virgin of the Rocks?’

‘Should I have?’ Russell asked, a cheeky twinkle in his eye.

‘It’s just in the next room!’

‘I didn’t have much time, remember. Could only do the highlights.’

Marian sighed dramatically. ‘Oh, well. You could spend a week in the Louvre and not see it all. I went back three times and I still missed a lot.’

‘What’s “the loover”?’ the wispy blonde asked.

‘It’s an art gallery in Paris,’ Russell told her.

‘God!’ the blonde sneered, ‘who’d spend a week in a boring old art gallery?’

Marian tried to smile. ‘Some people like boring old art galleries.’

‘Yeah, if you’re old and boring.’

Marian’s smile had hardened. ‘Yes, well, I guess they don’t hold much appeal for the young and ignorant.’

Russell reached out and took their glasses. ‘I’ll get us something to drink.’

The blonde glared at her. Marian just shook her head. She refused to compete. If he wanted her, he deserved her. She walked away and found the finger-food.

A glass of red wine appeared before her. ‘So,’ Russell said, ‘tell me what else I missed out on.’ From the corner of her eye, Marian could see the blonde, fresh glass in hand, flabbergasted.

Marian was never sure whether it was the several glasses of wine she had that evening that made her conversation so scintillating, or the few Russell had. Nor could she remember much of what they talked about. She could remember describing her workmates’ lugubrious romantic intrigues, and arguing that the stock market was a form of mass hysteria, but the rest was lost in a pleasant haze.

At some point they had been taken into a larger group and the talk turned to financial matters. Marian had nothing to contribute to the conversation. Russell seemed to be participating but said little of consequence and his eyes kept wandering to her with a private smile.

Marian finally slipped away to the ladies’ room, but, reluctant to return to an alien conversation, she found a balcony with a view over the river instead. She had only been there a few minutes when she heard the sliding door open and close.

Russell leaned over the balustrade beside her. ‘It’s nice and cool out here.’

‘Mmmm…’

They gazed at the play of lights on the water’s surface for a while.

Russell broke the silence. ‘I don’t often meet people like you.’

‘Like what, in particular?’

‘People I can talk to about… other things.’

‘Other than…?’

‘Making money and spending it.’

Marian chuckled. ‘Because I’ve never had much to spend.’

‘And it doesn’t worry you, does it?’

‘Sometimes. When the bills come in.’

They watched a party cruiser pass by below them.

Marian felt a hand in her hair. ‘It’s so soft.’

Russell’s finger drew a line from the back of her ear around the line of her jaw. Marian froze. It stopped under her chin and gently turned her face towards him. His grey eyes, pale in the moonlight, came closer. She could feel his breath on her face, then his lips touched hers. She had forgotten how it felt – like a draught of good cognac. Its heat flooded her, carried her away, until she felt as though she were flying.

Electronic strains of Für Elise brought her to a crash landing.

Russell pulled away, fishing a mobile out of his pocket. He checked the name, then looked up at her apologetically. Marian got the hint and went inside, but she couldn’t resist the temptation to watch him through the glass doors. His hand clutched the phone to his ear. His spine was straight and stiff. When the short call was over he snapped the phone shut and stood motionless with it in his hand. Marian withdrew into the bar.

Looking back on it, Marian could only attribute what came next to the wine, as well. She had collected her shawl and handbag, but before leaving she did something she wouldn’t normally have had the front to do. She went looking for Russell.

She found him still on the balcony, hands in pockets, deep in thought.

‘I just thought I’d say goodnight.’

He looked at her blankly. ‘You’re going?’

‘Yes.’ She waited for a moment, trying to make out his expression in the low-light. ‘Well, goodnight then.’ She turned to go.

‘Wait.’

She paused, then turned back slowly.

‘I was wondering… I’ve got tickets for Sunset Boulevard on Friday night. Would you like to come?’

That was the point when she should have seen what was coming, when she should have said no and walked away. But it wasn’t often that she was kissed by a handsome young man in the moonlight, or asked out, for that matter. At that moment it didn’t matter to her that the tickets had been bought for someone else, someone who could bring him to a dead stop in the middle of a party. It would matter later, but by then it was too late.

 

‘Twenty-four, twenty-eight, twenty-seven. Twenty-seven, Mamma. Is that enough?’ Alice threw herself across her mother’s lap. ‘I’m tired. Are we home yet?’

‘Just two more stations, sweetheart.’

Marian watched the little weatherboard houses pass by, stroking Alice’s hair. She had always been fascinated by red hair and had been proud of the slight touch of it in her own, even though it was only visible in strong sunlight. But now she wished Alice had been born with a less striking colour.

 

Three

 

The tram was crowded with workers heading back to their offices after lunch. Staring blindly between the heads pressed around him, Russell suddenly realised he had missed his stop. Pushing his way through to the door, he got off and walked the two blocks back to his building.

On the thirty-first floor, he passed the trading room with its rows of desks topped with banks of computer screens and its cacophony of currency traders shouting international deals down the phone lines. He wondered how he had ever worked in such an environment. His own office was usually a model of quiet restraint where deals could take weeks, even months, rather than seconds, to put together.

Usually, that is, except that for the last week the room’s normal decorum had been surrendered to the Christmas spirit. Ropes of tinsel had been strung from the ceiling, bunches of plastic mistletoe hung in doorways, and the younger members of the team were sporting Santa hats and foam antlers. Russell suddenly remembered he hadn’t bought a gift for his sister-in-law after all. He would have to try again after work. Luckily, the shops would be open till midnight.

He sat down at his desk but his eyes wandered to the window where he could see the bay disappearing into a blue mist, and make out a line of cars snaking into the hold of the ferry to Tasmania with its green valleys and ancient forests. A beep from his computer drew him back to his desk. He checked his emails. There was one from his boss asking to see him as soon as he got in.

 

 

Chris looked up distractedly from his screen. ‘Russell? To what do I owe this great honour.’

‘You asked to see me?’

‘Oh, yeah, that’s right. Take a seat, mate, while I finish up here.’

Chris always made it seem as though he was buried in work so as to look like a hero when he got things done. Russell knew all his tricks. He had taught them to him when Chris was his junior before he went to New York.

Chris sent off his email, then settled back in his chair, looking at Russell with a concerned frown. ‘Russell, mate, this is hurting me more than it’s hurting you, and if it was up to me, I’d give you one more chance. But the boys upstairs, mate, they’re the problem. They’ve looked at your figures and they just don’t stack up.’

Russell said nothing. He knew what his figures were like.

Chris leaned forward. ‘Where’s it all gone, Russ? You used to be the little tin god around here. We expected great things from you when you got back from New York. What’s happened to you, mate?’

Smoke and dust and free-falling bodies. He and his colleagues had watched it all through a wall of glass as though at their own private viewing. There was a numbness now where ambition used to be.

‘What now?’ Russell asked.

Chris was nonplussed. ‘You know the drill, mate. I’ve bought you two more weeks, but it’s the best I can do. If you don’t pick up your game by then, I won’t have a choice.’

 

 

‘What did Chris want to see you about?’ Lisa asked, leaning against a filing cabinet, champagne flute in hand. It was the first time they’d had to themselves all night. Around them, the rest of the office drank and danced to all the well-worn Christmas songs.

‘How did you hear about that?’

‘All the goss comes to me. You know that.’ Of course, Sally, Chris’s PA, was Lisa’s contact on his floor.

‘Then you should know what he wanted.’

Lisa studied her glass. ‘Sally wouldn’t say. Said it should come from you.’

‘That should’ve told you all you want to know.’ He looked away from her. ‘I’m on my way out. Two weeks to lift my game or else.’

‘What are you going to do about it?’

‘I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.’

‘Russell, your future’s on the line here. Our future. What are we supposed to live on?’

‘There are other jobs.’

‘What other bank will want you if you get fired from here?’

‘Then I’ll resign first.’

Lisa had come round in front of him. Her green eyes were blazing. ‘Is that the best you can do, Russell Braddon? Is this the sort of man you are? How did I ever get involved with you?’

You’re never home. I’m stuck in this apartment all day long. It’s all about your career. What about me? Don’t I mean anything to you anymore? I’d never have come here if I thought it would be like this…

‘It’s Christmas. Can we leave it for now, Jess?’

‘Who’s Jess?’ Lisa snapped.

‘No one,’ Russell answered.

Lisa glared at him for a moment, then tossed her blonde hair and walked away. Russell watched her sensuous figure disappear into the throng, drained his glass of scotch and went down to his car.

 

Four

 

The house smelt of spiced meat roasting and rich tomato sauce simmering. Alice ran ahead down the long corridor, clutching a gift-wrapped parcel and shouting, ‘Merry Christmas! Merry Christmas!’ When Marian reached the kitchen, Alice was being held high in her grandfather’s arms and smothered in kisses by her grandmother. They could barely tear themselves away to give their daughter a kiss.

‘Marianna, cara. Buon Natale.’

Marian hugged them both, Pasquale and Caterina, two sturdy Italian peasants in their sixties, their round smiling faces registering the years of hard work it had taken to make a comfortable home for their children in their adopted country.

‘Open your present, Nonna,’ Alice demanded, jumping up and down. The parcel held a set of Italian café style coffee cups that would go well with the coffee machine John had given them. Marian gave her father a large beach towel to replace the one he had brought back from Surfers Paradise sometime in the seventies.

After duly appreciating his gift, Pasquale asked archly, ‘Nonna, we get Christmas present for Elisa?’

‘I no remember,’ Caterina answered. ‘Elisa, go look under Christmas tree. Maybe still something for you.’

Not taken in by this charade for a moment, Alice raced into the lounge room and came back with a floppy package. Tearing the paper away, she groaned in disappointment. ‘Clothes.’

‘Nonno,’ Caterina asked her husband, ‘you sure this all we get for Elisa?’

‘Maybe, but I go check just in case.’ Pasquale came back with a large parcel which almost dwarfed Alice.

Marian gave a silent groan. ‘Mamma, it’s too much,’ she reproached her mother in Italian, while her daughter tore the wrappings from a Barbie dolls’ house.

Caterina smiled indulgently. ‘Let her enjoy her childhood. It only comes once.’

Marian bit her tongue, remembering how strict and demanding her parents had been with her, until, with another hug and kiss, Pasquale gave her an envelope which enclosed a substantial cheque.

Lunch was scheduled for one o’clock. By ten to Caterina was getting anxious about the roast pork and pasta al forno in the oven. She was muttering under her breath about young men who spent all night on the town and slept all day, when the front doorbell rang. Alice ran past Marian up the corridor to be the first to the door.

‘Uncle John, Uncle John,’ she cried as she was lifted up in her uncle’s arms, ‘what did you get me for Christmas?’

John’s handsome brown eyes widened. ‘Christmas? Is it Christmas today?’

Alice pulled his ears. ‘You old silly. What did you get me?’

‘Ouch. All right, all right. I give in. It’s in the car.’

Marian held her breath as Alice followed John out to his Alfa Romeo, and let it go when she saw the parcel wasn’t too big. Alice rushed past her mother, eager to tear off the elaborate wrapping.

Marian kissed her younger brother. ‘It’s not too expensive, is it?’

‘It’s all right, sis. I can afford it.’

‘That’s not the point.’

After giving her wayward son a perfunctory kiss, Caterina ushered them all into the dining room. ‘A tavola, everybody, before the pasta burns.’

 

 

John followed Marian into the kitchen where she was heating up custard sauce. He leaned against the bench beside her, groaning. ‘Thank God Christmas only comes once a year. I’m going to burst. Do we have to have plum pudding as well?’

Marian grinned. ‘Mum’s idea of being Australian. Serve a three course Italian meal and then top it off with a heavy English pudding.’

The microwave beeped. Marian stirred the sauce, put it in for another minute and watched it turn.

‘Are you all right, sis?’ John asked. ‘You’ve been a bit quiet today.’

‘Have I?’

‘Yeah. You haven’t snapped my head off once.’ Behind John’s cheeky grin, there was genuine concern.

‘He’s back.’

John looked perplexed for a moment, then light dawned. ‘You saw him?’

‘Yesterday, in the city, when I was shopping… with Alice.’

‘You didn’t tell him?’

Marian shook her head. ‘I didn’t need to.’

‘Did he say anything?’

‘Not really. But…’

John looked at her severely. ‘No buts. The bastard left you stranded. You did without him then. You can do without him now. Right?’

Marian didn’t answer.

He took her by the shoulders. ‘I’m here for you. You’ve got Alice for cuddles and me to change the light bulbs. What more do you need? Right?’

 

 

It was an old joke between them. When Marian had first moved into her own unit, she had asked her father’s help with a few repairs. But he was still too angry with her for leaving home, so he sent John in his place. John had been a self-centred teenager then and resented having his weekend taken up by his boring big sister.

‘Why haven’t you got a fellow of your own to do all this stuff for you?’ he demanded as he fiddled with an ancient light fitting. Her family took it as a personal affront that she was single at an age when other Italian girls were married – as if she was on her own by choice.

‘As far as I’m concerned, men are only good for two things, and one of them is changing light-bulbs,’ Marian retorted. ‘You’ll do for that and as for the other – it’s over-rated.’

‘With an attitude like that, I’m not surprised,’ John had muttered.

It was a pure accident that John was the first person she told she was pregnant. Still in shock, she had cried off another family dinner. Afraid that her daughter lived on packet soup except for the weekly meal she cooked for her, Caterina had sent John round with pasta and meat balls.

‘What’s up with you, sis?’ he asked when she opened the door. ‘You look like shit.’

‘Gosh, thanks.’ Marian put the meal straight into the fridge. The very warmth of the plate made her feel queasy.

‘Oh, come on, you know I didn’t mean it like that. Mum’s worried about you. You haven’t turned up for three weeks.’

John followed her into the kitchen. As usual, he perched on the table, and sat right on the Fertility Control Clinic brochure. Marian hadn’t been expecting visitors.

John was stunned into silence. He held the brochure out to her, mutely asking for an explanation. Marian ripped it from his hand, then burst into tears. John put his arms around her and let her cry until she was ready to talk.

She poured out the whole story. But that was the past. Now she had to consider the future. ‘I’ve got to decide in the next day or two. I’ve left it too long.’

‘Why?’ John asked.

‘Why?’ Marian sniffed.

‘Why have you taken so long to decide?’

‘I’ve got a lot to think about. What about my job? Where are we going to live? I can’t keep up the mortgage on a pension. What about Mum and Dad? You know what they’re like. An unmarried daughter with a baby? They’ll disown me, and they’ll still get hell from the family as well as the paesani.’  The questions came out pat. She had been rehearsing them for the last three weeks.

John had an answer for them all. ‘You work for the public service; you can get maternity leave. I can help with the mortgage; I’m doing all right at the moment. Don’t worry about Mum and Dad; I’ll handle them. They’ll come round once they see the baby. And as for the paesani, who gives a shit. So, what’s your problem?’

Marian knew what the problem was, but she had never put it into words. ‘I don’t know. I’m just afraid… I won’t be a good mother. There are times when I hate this baby.’

John put an arm around her shoulders. ‘So there must be times when you love it, when you really want it.’

Marian pulled away. ‘But would it be fair on her… to come into the world without a father, and a mother who might…?’

‘God, Marian, you talk a lot of shit.’ John got up and paced across the room. ‘Do you really think you’re capable of hating your own kid? You want this baby. You know you do.’ He paused and looked past her. ‘And let’s be honest here. You’re thirty-two already, and you’ve never had much luck. This might be your last chance.’

Marian was silent for a moment. ‘You can be such a bastard, sometimes.’

‘It’s what brothers are for.’ John came back and sat next to her. ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.’ He took both her hands. ‘Look, I promise. I’ll be there for you. Whatever you need – a shoulder to cry on, a sounding board, a babysitter – you name it.’

Marian shook her head. ‘You can say that now, but you’ll have kids of your own soon enough and you won’t want to be bothered with mine.’

John squeezed her hands. ‘Not kids, sis. I’ll never have kids.’

Marian wasn’t as surprised as John had expected her to be. ‘Wow, we are being honest tonight, aren’t we?’

She had spent the night staring at the ceiling. The next day she threw the brochure away and rang her brother.

John had been true to his word. Marian had been able to keep her unit, even when she resigned from the public service and went back to university. Alice was three months old before John brought her grandparents to see her. Caterina burst into tears and covered Alice in kisses. Pasquale had mutely held Marian’s hand, tears in his own eyes, as he waited for his turn to hold the baby.

But Marian had been right about one thing. Where once they had always sat down to a table of fifteen or sixteen people every holiday, now there were only the five of them for Christmas lunch. Caterina’s sisters had never forgiven her for her spirited defence of her daughter’s decision.

 

Five

 

The house stood high above the well-wooded grounds so that its rear deck could overlook the surf beach. Slim and buoyant despite the heat, his sister-in-law Cindy was the first to greet him with her big, toothy smile as he came up the back stairs. She threw her arms around him and gave him a loud kiss. ‘Merry Christmas, Russ.’ She looked behind him. ‘All alone?’

Russell returned her kiss. ‘Afraid so.’

His older brother Cameron came towards him, hand outstretched. ‘Glad you could make it, Russ.’ With his blue eyes and golden curls, Cameron had been the pretty boy of the family, but since reaching his mid-thirties he had put on weight and lost much of his hair. ‘Here, kids,’ he called to the miniature horde running about, ‘come and say hello to your Uncle Russell.’

Russell squatted as three blonde children and one little redhead came forward. Each gave their uncle a polite peck on the cheek as he handed them their presents, except little Betsy who glowered at him and even had to be persuaded by her mother to take the proffered parcel.

‘They’ll get used to you soon,’ Cindy sighed.

He straightened up and steeled his back for the next ordeal. ‘Where’s Mother?’

Cindy’s smile wilted. ‘Inside. It’s too hot for her out here. Oh, and Russ, she’s got someone with her.’

‘A boyfriend?’

Cindy nodded.

‘What’s this one like?’

‘A bore, but a rich bore.’

‘Aren’t they all?’

 

 

The children had had enough of the water and were throwing a Frisbee around on the sand. Cameron and Russell could finally relax their vigilance and stretch out on their deck-chairs. Russell woke suddenly as the Frisbee clipped his arm.

‘Sorry, Uncle Russell,’ several voices chorused, as two boys dived into the sand behind him.

Cameron laughed. ‘Not getting enough sleep, Russ? Bed too hard?’

Russell was still half asleep. ‘No, it’s fine.’

Cameron sobered. ‘Then what’s keeping you up half the night? I heard you out on the deck at three o’clock in the morning.’

‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you.’

Cameron grinned. ‘Not your fault. I’d had too much of Cindy’s cooking. But you hardly ate a thing. Something on your mind?’

Russell looked out over the sea as he tried to think of a suitable explanation. ‘Work. I’ve been given two weeks to shape up or ship out.’ But it was a lie. He’d hardly given his job a thought.

‘Shit, Russ. That’s no good. What’s the problem?’

‘New management. I don’t fit in anymore.’

‘What, over the hill at thirty-three?’

‘It’s a young man’s game.’

‘Still a bit harsh. What’ll you do?’

‘Don’t know yet.’

Cameron reached across and patted Russell’s arm. ‘Anything you need, bro…’

 

 

After a late lunch, Russell was waiting out the heat of the afternoon on the deck. Below, breakers washed over the rock pools, wet-suited surfers rode their boards into shore past their brethren paddling back out to sea, beach umbrellas were picked up by the wind and deposited a few metres down the beach, much to the consternation of the families who had carried them down the steep sandy paths.

Mrs Braddon and her companion had gone to visit friends. Cameron was indoors, asleep on the couch, the Boxing Day cricket match low on the television. Cindy was pottering about in the kitchen leaving Russell to watch the children who were chasing each other about noisily on the wooden deck in ever tightening circles.

Little Betsy’s red curls stood out against the three pale blonde heads. Buffeted by their wake, Betsy suddenly hit the deck. She sat stunned for a moment, then her face scrunched up. She looked to her siblings, but they were taking no notice of her. Her face cleared and she pulled herself upright, bum first.

Bobbing down, she rescued her sandal from between running feet and looked around the deck, frowning, the sandal in one hand, the other scratching her head. If she was looking for adult help, there was only Uncle Russell to be had. Finally she limped towards him, wordlessly holding her sandal out to him.

Russell took the sandal and tried to coax a word out of her. ‘What do you want me to do, Betsy?’

Betsy looked down at the sandal.

‘Can I take it home with me?’

Betsy shook her head.

‘Will I give it to the dog?’

Betsy shook her head again.

‘Do you want to put it back on?’

Betsy nodded.

‘First we have to undo the buckle, like this.’ Russell held the open sandal in his palm. ‘Now, how are we going to put it back on?’ He held out his arms to her. ‘How about you get on my knee.’ Betsy let Russell lift her onto his lap and sat there patiently while he worked her foot into the sandal and re-fastened the buckle. ‘How’s that?’ He set her back on her feet. They looked at her small shod feet for a moment, then Betsy swiftly put her plump arms around her uncle’s neck before running off to join the others.

Russell’s heart overflowed.

‘You’re so good with kids, Russ.’ Cindy smiled down at him, handing him a lemon squash. ‘Isn’t it about time you had some of your own?’

 

Six

 

Alice stomped in from the backyard. ‘I want to go to Nonna’s.’

Marian rolled her eyes at the footprints on her newly washed kitchen floor. ‘I told you to stay outside until I called you.’

‘I’m bored. I want to play on the swing.’

‘I told you. We’re going to Nonna’s when I finish the housework.’

‘You never do housework.’

Which was what was making it such a chore today. Marian sighed. ‘It’s almost New Years. You know what Nonna says. If your house is dirty at New Years it’ll be dirty all year.’

Alice huffed.

‘Why don’t you help instead of being such a pain? You can start by tidying your room.’

Alice gave her mother an evil look and stomped to her bedroom. Marian could hear things flying around and wasn’t looking forward to what she would find in there.

Alice rushed out of the door when the doorbell rang. ‘I’ll get it.’

Expecting it was John, Marian let her go while she worked her way down the bookshelf with Mr Sheen.

‘It’s the man,’ Alice announced.

‘What man?’ Marian looked up wearily and saw Russell standing behind Alice and clutching a large Christmas-wrapped parcel. She got up off the floor. ‘What are you doing here?’

Russell attempted a charming smile. ‘It’s Christmas. I thought Alice might like…’

‘Is that for me?’ Alice had already snatched the parcel from his hands before Marian could stop her.

‘Alice!’ Marian could feel her face reddening. ‘Give that back.’ But Alice was already sitting on the floor and ripping the paper off. ‘You could at least say thank you,’ she finished lamely.

‘Thank you, Mister,’ Alice chanted without raising her eyes from her prize.

‘It’s this time of year,’ Marian explained, barely able to meet Russell’s eye. ‘She gets so much…’

Russell’s smile widened. ‘No need to apologise. You should have seen my brother’s kids. We could barely see them for all the wrapping paper.’

Marian stood awkwardly. She could hardly throw him out now. ‘Would you like a cup of coffee?’

‘That’d be nice.’

The percolator took long enough to boil to give Marian time to compose herself. When she came out with two cups of espresso coffee, Russell was sitting on the floor with Alice, freeing a baby-doll from its packaging, their two curly red heads almost touching. Marian put the cups down before she dropped them. She went into the kitchen for sugar, gripping the bench to steady herself before turning back.

‘Do you want milk?’ she asked.

Two pearly faces turned to her. ‘No, thanks,’ said one. ‘Yes, please,’ said the other.

Marian went back into the kitchen. When she came out with a glass of choc-mint flavoured milk, Russell was pulling out a chair for Alice to sit on. She handed him the glass and he took it with a smile that seemed to come from deep within him.

‘You’d better drink your coffee before it gets cold,’ she said and swallowed hers in one bitter swig.

Her face still plastered with choc-mint milk, Alice had gone back to playing with her new doll. Russell and Marian were lingering over their second cup, watching her in silence.

‘I’d like to see more of her,’ Russell said at last.

‘Why should you?’ Marian asked.

‘Isn’t it obvious?’

‘No.’

‘Marian, please…’

Marian looked at him, rage tightening her throat. ‘You’ve managed without her this long…’

‘I didn’t know.’

‘Whose fault was that?’

‘Can’t I make up for it now?’

‘It’s too late. She’s fine as she is. We’re both fine as we are.’

‘But…’

Marian got up. ‘Just go away and leave us alone. You’re good at that.’

Russell stood and faced her, his face pale and rigid. ‘I have my rights. So has she.’

Marian said nothing and walked to the front door, holding it open.

Russell stood a moment them went and squatted next to Alice. ‘Goodbye, Alice.’

Alice looked up at him, still frowning in concentration. ‘You going?’

Russell nodded. ‘Can I come back and see you?’

Alice shrugged. ‘If you like.’ And went back to the doll.

Russell came to the door, giving Marian a look of dour triumph. ‘You’ll be hearing from my lawyer.’

Marian gripped the door and let him go without another word. The door banged shut of its own accord.

Alice played on. Marian went into her room and shut the door behind her.

 

Seven

 

The harsh mid-morning sun bounced off the river, seven stories below. A few desultory tourists wandered about looking for somewhere to have breakfast where, the night before, dense crowds had milled to see in the New Year. Marian had stood on the balcony with the rest of Julie’s guests to watch the fireworks light up the darkness between the skyscrapers.

Julie shuffled out of the bathroom in a fluffy dressing gown. ‘Good morning,’ she grumbled.

Marian handed her a glass of orange juice and indicated a tray of re-heated finger food. ‘Breakfast.’

Julie drank and grimaced. ‘Alice still asleep?’

‘Like a log. Thanks for letting me bring her and stay the night.’

Julie shrugged. ‘It’s no trouble.’ Then she grinned. ‘She was the life of the party.’

Marian cringed at the memory of Alice rushing up to people all night, blowing a tin horn in their faces and wishing them Happy New Year. At midnight she had insisted on giving everyone in the room a big, sloppy kiss.

‘Your friends aren’t used to kids, are they? I would’ve left her with Mum and Dad if I could.’

Julie chose a pastizzi. ‘No, your olds deserve a night out themselves now and again.’

Marian found some bruschetta. ‘I hope they were all right.’

‘Why shouldn’t they be? Weren’t they at that Italian social club of theirs?’

‘It’s the first time they’ve gone since Alice was born.’

Julie picked up a stuffed mushroom. ‘Oh? Well, good on them. You’ll see… what do you call them, the paesani?… they’re probably over it already. There’s sure to have been a new juicy scandal since then. I grew up in a country town, remember. I know what it’s like.’

‘Ma-a-a?’ Alice padded into the living room, her new baby doll clutched in her arms. ‘Ma-a-a?’

‘I’m here, sweetheart.’

Alice came out to the balcony. ‘I’m hungry.’

Julie put a few slices of pizza on a plate. ‘Here you are, kiddo. Get stuck into that while I get you something a bit healthier.’

Alice took the plate, dropping the doll at Julie’s feet to free up her hands. Julie picked it up. ‘I haven’t seen this one before. Did you get it for Christmas?’

Alice answered around a half-mashed mouthful. ‘The man gave it to me.’

‘What man?’

‘The one who wouldn’t let me see the windows.’

‘Ooh,’ Julie said. ‘What a nasty man.’

‘Alice!’ Marian chided. ‘It wasn’t like that. He stopped her from running right under a tram. The little miss almost gave me a heart attack.’

‘What? And then he gave her a doll? Right then and there?’

‘No-o-o,’ Alice said. ‘He came to our house and gave it to me. He said he’s going to come and see me again and bring me lots of presents.’

Julie raised an eyebrow. ‘This sounds promising.’ Then she frowned. ‘But maybe you should have been a bit more careful. What if he’s a you-know-what.’ She nodded at Alice.

Marian sighed. ‘He won’t be back.’

Julie looked at her shrewdly. ‘So, who was this mystery man?’

‘His name’s Rushall,’ Alice piped up.

‘Rushall, like the station?’

Marian waited for the penny to drop.

Both Julie’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Russell? It was Russell? God, how romantic is that?’

Marian shook her head. ‘Melodramatic rather than romantic.’

‘Wow. I heard he was back.’

Now Marian was shocked. ‘You knew and you didn’t tell me?’

Julie cringed apologetically. ‘I didn’t want to upset you. And what were the odds?’

‘A hundred percent as it turned out.’ Suddenly Marian’s vision blurred.

She heard Julie get up. ‘Alice, sweetie. Come inside and I’ll get you some cereal. How about we put on a DVD?’

Marian had dried her tears by the time Julie got back. She sat down and took Marian’s hand. It was a subject they had avoided since the first onrush of hurt and anger so that now it seemed as new and raw as ever.

‘It wasn’t that he left. I knew it couldn’t last forever. It was the way he left. To just disappear without a word. I had to ring his office to find out where he was – I was that desperate to talk to him. Shit. Desperate says it all.’

Julie stroked her hand. ‘No…’

Marian almost laughed. ‘Oh, yes. You know you’re desperate when you have to try so hard to act as though you aren’t. You don’t know how hard it was not to pick up that phone when I hadn’t heard from him in days… not to beg him to stay when he suddenly needed to go… not to ask him who the phone calls were from.’

‘I know.’

‘That last time, it had been four weeks since I’d seen him. He’d broken three dates and I’d let him. But he promised that he’d be there that night. So when he rang to cancel again… I thought I was doing so well. I didn’t cry or wheedle or use emotional blackmail… well I thought I didn’t. I was calm and logical… assertive, not demanding… I just told him clearly and plainly why I thought I had the right to expect him to keep that date. God, what an idiot I was.’

‘Ssshhh…’

There was so much she hadn’t told Julie, that she couldn’t have put into words even if she had tried. There had been a passion about him that night. Something she had never felt in him before. As though he was finally letting fall the barrier she had always felt between them. But, by the time he was dressed to leave, the wall was up again. He had sat on the side of her bed, stroked her hair and kissed her goodbye, not passionately on the lips, but chastely on the cheek.

But perhaps she had been fooling herself all along and the only barrier between them that had actually broken down that night was that damned condom.

‘If only I knew why… or who.’

‘I could try to find out for you.’ Julie had always been the practical one, the one who couldn’t stand loose ends. ‘I’ve still got some mutual contacts. I could ask around.’

‘No, Julie, don’t worry about it,’ Marian said, all the time wishing just that. But what would it achieve? Could she hurt any more… or less? ‘Leave it be.’

Julie shrugged. ‘Well, if you don’t want to know, I do. Do you think I’ve enjoyed watching you go through all this? I started it. I’ll get you closure.’

Alice ran out of the living room and fell against Marian’s lap. ‘Can we go home now?’ Marian tousled Alice’s curls. There could be no closure for her.

 

Eight

 

Sarah’s high, pale forehead knitted as she peered at the letter through large-rimmed glasses. Marian watched her across the desk in the modest office of her suburban law practice. Sarah looked up, her clear blue eyes quizzical. ‘I don’t understand what your problem is.’

Marian gripped the arms of her chair. ‘He has no right to demand access. She’s my daughter.’

‘I might not have been one of white coats at uni, Marian, but if I remember rightly, it takes two.’

‘Alice only needs one.’

‘Marian, he’s offering to pay generous child support.’

‘He turns up after five years and expects to buy his way into our lives.’

‘He didn’t know he had a child for five years.’

‘He still doesn’t. He’s making an assumption.’

Sarah sighed. ‘I met Russell once, remember? There’s no denying who she looks like.’

‘Pure coincidence.’

Sarah waited for a moment, then picked up a pen. ‘So, what are your instructions?’

‘Tell him I don’t want his money. Tell him… he has no cause to even offer it.’

‘So, you’re refusing the child support and denying him access?’

‘Yes.’

Sarah shook her head. ‘You’re the client.’

Two weeks later Marian was sitting in the same chair while Sarah read another letter. Sarah raised her almost invisible eyebrows. ‘He’s moving this along, isn’t he? Threatening you with a court order. That’s the last thing you want.’

Marian folded and refolded the envelope in her hand. ‘What’s next?’

‘I’ll reply and propose mediation.’

‘Would I have to see him?’

‘Not if you don’t want to. You could be in two separate rooms. But it would make things much easier if you could talk face to face. You don’t expect him to get violent do you?’

‘And if I don’t agree to mediation?’

‘We could go to court and see which one of you can afford the best barristers.’

Marian looked up at Sarah, saw the annoyance in her wise eyes, and nodded.

The light on her answering machine was blinking when she got home. It was Julie. ‘I’ve got that information I said I’d get for you, about Russell. Give me a call. But make sure you’re sitting down.’

 

 

Marian studied her hands folded in front of her on the highly polished timber table. Her fingers were tightly interlocked and her thumbs pressed together. Around her, she knew, were Sarah, Karen the mediator, Russell and Stephen, his solicitor. Stephen was speaking.

‘My client is not asking for custody, only for access, and in return he is willing to pay generous child support. Your client will lose nothing and gain financial security and a baby-sitter one day a fortnight.’ No one laughed at his weak joke.

Sarah waited for a moment before replying. ‘My client does not require child support, so refuses the offer.’

‘My client has a right to access to his own child.’

Marian heard Sarah take a breath. ‘My client denies that your client is the father of her child.’

‘For God’s sake,’ Stephen muttered. ‘How the hell…?’

Karen intervened. ‘Is that your position, Marian?’

Marian kept her eyes on her hands. ‘He has no proof.’

‘You can’t deny it, Marian.’ That was Russell. He seemed to be waiting for a reply.

Stephen filled the breach. ‘We’ll ask for a court order for a DNA test.’

‘Which is usually denied,’ Sarah retorted.

‘I doubt it would be denied in this case,’ Stephen shot back. ‘In most cases it’s requested by the recognized father of the child who doubts his paternity. Most magistrates would feel that a negative result would be detrimental to the child. In this case a negative result would be no loss to the child and a positive result would be a material gain.’

‘He has a point there,’ Karen concluded.

Russell tried to appeal to her. ‘It would be positive, wouldn’t it, Marian? You can’t tell me there was someone else.’

‘And you,’ Marian said at last, ‘can you tell me if there was someone else? Someone called Jessica, perhaps.’ She had thought her voice would gag on her rage.

She looked up at him then. He was staring at her, his face pale. ‘Who told you?’

‘It wasn’t you, was it?’

Karen’s calm voice came between them. ‘Marian, I don’t think another woman in Russell’s life is relevant to this issue.’

‘It is for me.’ Marian stood up. ‘I don’t see the point in all this. Alice and I are fine as we are. We don’t need him or his money.’ She walked out without waiting for Sarah.

Sarah found her crouched on the ladies’ room floor. She brought her a box of tissues and settled down beside her.

 

Nine

 

‘Russell, mate, take a seat.’ Chris was at his affable best.

Russell sat down.

Chris’s expression became pensive, his lips twisted as he considered his next words. ‘Look, mate, I promise, I went into bat for you, but it was too late. The boys upstairs won’t give you another chance. And you can’t blame them. You haven’t been making much of an effort, have you?’ Chris waited. Was he expecting Russell to grovel and beat his chest?

‘It’s not exactly the best time of year for it.’

Chris put on a sanctimonious look. ‘The market waits for no man.’

Russell got up before he laughed in Chris’s face. ‘So, I’ll clear my desk, then. Have the security guards been called?’

Chris lowered his eyes and turned to his computer screen.

The main office was strangely quiet as Russell returned to his desk. A security guard stood beside it and watched in silence as Russell put a few personal things into his briefcase. Lisa casually walked in as Russell led the security guard to the lift-well. She gave Russell a cool look and continued on her way.

The security guard left Russell to enter the lift alone. Russell watched the doors shut and let out a breath. All the way down to the ground he waited for the pain to hit, but it didn’t. He nodded and smiled at the security guard in reception and passed through the glass doors into a blast of cleansing heat.

 

 

Russell met Stephen for a quick coffee before the next session.

‘Have you spoken to Sarah?’ Russell asked.

‘Against my better judgement. We didn’t need to tell them. We could have kept it up our sleeve.’

Russell grinned. ‘That I got the sack? It isn’t much of a card.’

‘In a tricky negotiation every little bit helps.’

‘You’ve got the best poker face in the business, mate. We’ll be right.’ They sipped their coffee. ‘Which way do you think she’ll go?’

‘How should I know?’ Stephen said. ‘They’re all a mystery to me.’

Russell chuckled. Like his brother Cameron, Stephen had met his wife at sixteen. Russell couldn’t imagine Cameron without Cindy, or Stephen without Judy. ‘You’re a lot better qualified than I am.’

‘You know what they say, get ’em young and train ’em.’

Russell grinned. He knew who had trained whom. ‘Tell me, what do you think of her?’

‘Who, Marian?’ Stephen shrugged. ‘A woman that doesn’t want your money can’t be all bad.’ Stephen cocked an eyebrow. ‘Have you still got a thing for her? I didn’t think she was your type.’

‘What is my type?’

‘Well, for one thing, not the type that refuses to take your money. Jessica didn’t stint herself.’ Stephen pushed his empty cup aside. ‘Look, mate, I haven’t seen Marian at her best. But I remember you telling me about her before you left. At the time I thought you’d found the right one.’

‘How could you tell?’

‘Just… the way you smiled when you talked about her. You never smiled when you talked about Jessica.’

 

 

As the lift doors opened at their floor, Russell asked, ‘What time do we start?’

‘In five minutes.’

‘Get settled down and I’ll join you in a minute. Same room as last time?’

‘No, Marian asked for separate rooms. We’re in the second one on the left.’

Russell lingered over drying his hands. Separate rooms. So Marian was still angry. But he couldn’t blame her, not after what he had done to her. And she was right. He had nothing to offer her in compensation. Only money, and now he couldn’t offer her much of that either.

Perhaps he should collect Stephen and all his paperwork and walk straight out of there. But he could still feel the warmth of Betsy’s arms around his neck, Alice’s little hands prising his away from the baby doll as he tried to undo the ties around its neck. No, he wasn’t ready to let it go yet. He shoved the paper towel into the bin and went looking for the second room on the left.

 

Ten

 

Marian sat waiting for Sarah in the stuffy little room, a cubicle really, without a window and only a table and four chairs as furniture. She felt empty and exhausted. She had cried out all her rage in long sleepless nights. Now she just wanted it over with. If she had ever harboured any hopes, any fantasies, of resurrecting her relationship with Russell they were gone. There was no relationship to resurrect. Jessica had been there before, during and after her. So much for his elusive passion.

The door opened and Russell walked in.

Marian’s heart jumped.

Russell stopped, blood flooding his face. ‘I’m sorry. Wrong room.’ He turned to leave.

Marian jumped to her feet. ‘Wait,’ she said, not knowing, even as she said it, why she wanted him to stay. ‘I-uh… I just wanted to say I was sorry to hear about your job.’

Russell stepped back into the room, watching her warily.

‘What are you going to do now?’

‘I haven’t really thought about it. Look for another job.’

‘As what?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Not merchant banking?’

‘I don’t think so. I’ve lost my touch.’

So New York hadn’t been the big career move, after all. And then she remembered. ‘You were in New York last year, weren’t you? Did you see it, the Twin Towers?’

He took a deep breath and nodded. Marian sat down and Russell perched on the end of a chair. Elbows resting on his knees, his hands gripped. Marian waited. When he finally spoke, his eyes were distant.

‘We were only a few blocks away. We got these phone calls from guys on the other side of the floor. Come over here, you’ve gotta see this. We stood at the windows and watched. We all knew people in there. Maybe they’d just been voices on the end of the phone, but… I watched people jump, and I wondered if I knew any of them. It was like watching the world collapse… Then there was nothing left. Nothing. Everything we’d sacrificed our lives for, gone. A pile of ashes.’

She let the words settle. ‘But then you came back, back to merchant banking?’

‘I didn’t know anything else… and I just wanted to come home.’

‘Then maybe getting fired was exactly what you needed. Now you’re free to do what you really want to do.’

‘I don’t think I know what that is.’

‘It’ll come to you.’

She could remember that feeling, of everything reeling around you, everything you thought was set in concrete, the future you had seen for yourself, however dull and narrow it may have been, suddenly falling away. And then the sudden realisation that what was left in its place was freedom, the freedom to take another way, and let it lead you where it would.

‘After I had Alice, I couldn’t go back to the Public Service. But I would never have left otherwise. I had a mortgage and it had been drummed into my head as long as I could remember. Get a good job, settle down, buy yourself a house.’

‘What did you do?’

‘Went back to uni. I’m teaching now.’

He smiled. ‘So, having Alice wasn’t all bad?’

She almost smiled back at him. ‘No, not all bad.’

He sighed. ‘You know I really am sorry for what happened. I just want to make it up to you. To both of you.’

‘With money?’

He shook his head. ‘Then what do you want from me?’

What did she want? Whatever it was she had wanted from him in the past, she had never had it, except for a few moments when she had let herself forget. So what should she ask for? For him to just leave her alone. To let her go back to the way it was, just her and Alice in that small, brick veneer unit?

The door opened and Sarah walked in. She stood looking from one to the other. ‘Russell, you’re not supposed to be here.’

Marian found herself leaping to his defence. ‘He just came in the wrong door.’

Sarah opened the door and stood back. ‘I’m going to have to ask you to leave.’

Russell nodded and took a step towards the door.

No, he couldn’t go now, now that she knew what she wanted. ‘Sarah, could we just have a few more minutes?’

Sarah sighed in exasperation. ‘Karen is waiting for us.’

‘Please.’

Sarah raised her eyes to heaven. ‘I’ll see what I can do.’  She left, closing the door behind her.

Russell stood, waiting, watching her.

Marian let her eyes drop. ‘I just want to know why.’

There was a silence. Then he said, ‘Because I was an idiot, I guess.’

He sat down again. She watched his hands explore the table as he spoke. ‘I don’t know what you’ve heard, but I daresay, the bare facts sound pretty bad. But when I first met you, I thought it was all over with her. She liked the perks of my job, but she didn’t like sharing me with it. She’d moved out, for the umpteenth time, about a week before I met you. I’d thought it was for good this time… but it wasn’t. It wasn’t ‘til a long time later that I worked it out. She’d heard about the New York job, and the only way I could take her with me at such short notice was if we were married.’

‘So, what was I? Gap-filler?’

His hands stretched across the table to her. ‘No. No… What we had… it had nothing to do with her… It was something… something I’d never had before.’

She glanced up and found him looking at her.

‘You remember the long talks we used to have? Even lying naked together we could talk, just talk.’

She remembered. And the love-making before and after hadn’t been too bad either, when it wasn’t being interrupted by Für Elise.

‘Why take her back?’

‘We’d been together for a long time. She fitted into my world.’

‘And I didn’t.’

He paused. ‘My world would have destroyed you.’

‘And you couldn’t tell me that?’

‘I didn’t have the guts.’

‘So, why didn’t she come home with you? What happened in New York?’

‘I was working long hours. She was alone most of the time, so I encouraged her to go out, make some friends.’ He paused, studying the wall. ‘And she did find one. One that had a lot more money than I did…. Like I said, I was an idiot.’

The door burst open. ‘Right!’ Stephen said. ‘We’re adjourned until one. Russell, shall we have a bite to eat?’ He took Russell’s arm. ‘Coming, mate?’

With a sad smile for Marian, Russell let Stephen drag him away. She caught Stephen’s ‘What the fuck…?’ as Sarah opened the door a moment after Stephen closed it.

‘So, have you two worked it out?’ Sarah asked.

 

Eleven

 

They were rather cramped, all five of them in that one small room, but Karen had accepted Sarah’s proposal that they all sit together with the hope that it would expedite matters. Russell searched Marian’s face for some clue to her intentions, but she didn’t meet his eye.

It was Sarah who accepted Karen’s invitation to open the proceedings. ‘My client has agreed to accept a nominal amount of child support and to allow Russell access to Alice.’ Russell gave a sigh of relief. ‘However, on my client’s behalf I feel I should stipulate certain conditions.’

Marian turned a look of surprise on Sarah. Sarah put a hand on Marian’s arm.

‘Alice barely knows Russell. I don’t think it is advisable for him to have unsupervised access visits with her until she knows him better and feels comfortable being alone with him.’

Sarah was looking directly at Russell.

‘How do you feel about that, Russell?’ Karen asked.

A knowing smile crept across Russell’s lips. ‘I quite agree. I think it would be best all round if Marian supervises the first few visits.’

‘Do we need to stipulate a number of visits?’

Marian opened her mouth to speak, but Russell forestalled her. ‘I daresay Alice’s mother will be the best person to judge when the time is right.’

Karen looked from one to the other. ‘Are we all agreed then?’

‘Fine by me,’ Stephen said.

‘Marian?’

Marian replied with a strangled yes.

‘Good. Then I can leave it to the lawyers to work out the dollars and cents? Congratulations, I hadn’t expected such a speedy resolution after the way we began.’

Karen shook hands all round and left. Stephen and Sarah shooed their clients out so that they could get down to business.

Russell and Marian found themselves marooned in the corridor.

‘So,’ Marian asked, ‘how are we going to do this?’

‘Well, I could come and see Alice at your place. Or we could take her out together. Does she like going out?’

Marian smiled. ‘Oh, yes.’

‘I was thinking that maybe this weekend I could take you both down to Sorrento. My brother and his family are still on holiday down there.’

‘I don’t know. I think it’s a bit soon for that. Why don’t we give it time?’

Russell studied Marian’s eyes. The anger had gone, but the reservations were still there. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘We’ll give it time.’

 

© Pauline Montagna 2016

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