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  • Published: 6 February 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761341571
  • Imprint: Michael Joseph
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 320
  • RRP: $34.99

Everything is Perfect

Extract

CHAPTER ONE

Jon rolls off me and I pull the bedsheet to my chin. It’s the last week of the summer school holidays. Ellie and Danny have been in bed for fifteen minutes, but if we’d waited any longer, we had as much chance of it happening as the Tasmanian Tiger being found alive. Danny has trouble settling – his brain won’t shut down. He’s probably clicking his LED lights on and off right now, alert to every sound.

In a show of affection, Jon touches his index finger to the tip of my nose.

‘I’ve got a new joke for you,’ he says, his breath warm and minty. ‘Got sent it by the guys at work.’

This is post-coital flirtation these days – jokes doing the rounds on WhatsApp.

‘Go on, then.’

‘Who’s the most popular guy in a nudist colony?’

‘I don’t know. Who?’

He’s laughing before he’s even told me the punchline. ‘The one who can carry a cup of coffee in each hand as well as a dozen doughnuts.’

In the nineties Jon had floppy hair, huge, muscle-strapped arms and a weakness for seeing me naked wearing his straw boater hat. I still love his vivid blue eyes. Tekapo eyes, I call them – a joke that stuck when he first told me about the colour of Lake Tekapo, on New Zealand’s South Island. The church on the water’s edge is where we got married. A showcase of white-tipped mountains reflected in an expanse of turquoise water, Jon’s hand resting on the bend of my spine. I held a bouquet of white camellias in front of my lace dress.

To people who know us we’re the perfect couple. We host the best dinner parties, and with our blend of English and Kiwi humour, we know how to have fun.

‘Your bloody husband looks like Daniel Craig,’ my friend and ex-colleague Liz likes to tell me (usually during her third chilli margarita).

That always makes me throw my hands in the air. ‘But where’s the mystery gone, Liz? The mystery.’ My husband on the toilet, checking the Premier League results on his phone, caused it to dissolve years ago.

Anyway, she’s exaggerating. Jon’s handsome, but the rusty version. It’s hidden under the surface, only coming to the fore when he’s animated so he can dazzle whoever he’s with. I’m so used to his face, I only notice his receding hairline, stubble, and occasionally spinach between his teeth after one of his green smoothies.

Lying in bed, he kisses me again. This time the kiss is better, and I could possibly get myself back in the mood. But it’s only a Tuesday night and it’s not like we’ve been out for a nice dinner.

Then I ruin it. I ask, ‘Why do you close your eyes when we have sex?’

He’s been doing that lately. His expression used to be, ‘You create an obsessive dark fire in my soul’, now it’s one that says, ‘I’m a schoolboy excited to get my first fondle’. When he’s inside me, the muscles between his eyebrows flex like he’s imagining the same scene with someone else. I want him to look at me and obliterate the hard layer I’ve been protecting myself with for so long I can’t remember not having it.

He shifts so he’s half sitting up. The only light is the bedside lamp, but it’s enough for me to notice confusion in the way his eyes have gone all squinty.

‘I was imagining you in your new dress.’

Liar, I think, but I don’t comment. More likely he was fanta­sising about the girl at Tropicana Salad, near the ferry wharf. I’ve seen the way he checks out her comedy boob job while ordering his satay chicken. He goes all jiggly, standing on the balls of his feet and cracking some lame observation about the weather.

‘Anyhow,’ he says, sinking into the pillow. ‘You enjoyed yourself, right?’ Always wanting to know if he did good.

‘Of course.’ I smooth my hand across the sheet.

Jon turns and his heavy arm slumps over me. We’re doing what we do – we have a little sleep, then he’ll get up to watch the Black Caps in some test match or other and I’ll think about the washing I dumped on the floor next to the sofa.

I hug my knees to my chest. I’ve been ignoring the aching spot in my heart for years with a plastered-on smile. Mad exercise routines and driving the kids to various activities, making nutritious meals and juggling work. Trying to be the wife I’m supposed to be.

I’m not going to be one of those women who starts playing netball in their forties and tears a hammy, or who does a Masters or begins trading in Bitcoin because they have a nagging in their gut to become more relevant and interesting. I spend my evenings scrolling through Harry Styles’ Insta account until my head becomes foggy. It’s probably the peri kicking in, because I half want to mother him and half wonder what it’d be like to join him in the shower with a rather foamy soap.

Before Jon, I pursued men – it’s what I did. These days, the most exciting chase is when Lilly our cavoodle steals a bread roll at a barbecue and I sprint around the garden after her.

I squirm so I’m not in my husband’s grasp and face the window. The louvres are open, the sky is clear. The cicadas’ song is all-consuming among the fan palms we had planted when the garden was landscaped. Outside it’s thirty degrees and humid, but in here the aircon is on full blast. Even under the covers, I shiver.

 

CHAPTER TWO

The kids are on our front deck, Lilly circling their legs, waiting in pristine uniforms for Jon to take the traditional ‘first day of term’ photo. Ellie turns eleven this year and is about to go into Year Five and Danny will be entering Year Four. The scene reminds me of one of those pamphlets regularly deposited in our letterbox by local real-estate agents – a white Hamptons-style home, a choreographed blur of an animal, a spotless kitchen and someone diving into a pool.

A line of sweat is slowly descending between my breasts, and I massage the back of my neck. According to the weather app it’s going to be at least 32 degrees today.

‘Smile,’ says Jon. He’s down on one knee, trying to get the right angle with his phone. After two major injuries, he stopped playing rugby, but the clue to his athletic past is still there in his shoulders. ‘To the left, Dan. A bit more.’ He gestures like he’s hanging a painting. ‘At least pretend you like each other. Ellie, put your arm round him.’

‘Is this okay?’ she asks her brother.

‘No,’ Danny replies and scrunches up his face.

‘Dan . . . please.’ Jon momentarily lowers the phone.

‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ I snap from behind. ‘Just take the photo.’

I recognise myself in the way Ellie tilts her head and juts out her chin. One thing I’ve promised myself is I’ll do a better job than my own mother (she didn’t set the bar high). Still, a gap has grown between Ellie and me during these summer holidays. She seems to be acting older than she is, wanting to do stuff teenagers do. I’ve lost the knack for how to talk to her. Everything comes out awkward. She’s like a fresh mango in the fruit aisle – her skin is intact and her insides whole, but in time she’ll become criss-crossed and sliced open, like we all are.

‘I’m done.’ Jon stands.

‘Let’s check if it’s any good.’ We stare at the photo. ‘Beautiful,’ I conclude.

‘Like their mum.’

I really need him to say, Beautiful, like you. ‘Mum’ is a word blanched of anything sexy.

‘Could you give us a lift?’ asks Ellie.

‘If you’re quick.’ He taps on his watch. ‘I have to get to the city; the traffic will be bad on the bridge.’

‘Bye, kids. Have fun!’ chirps Jon when we arrive in his silver X-Trail. He’s had it for over a decade but isn’t fussed about driving the latest thing (unlike myself).

We park in the kiss-and-drop zone and he knuckle-bumps the kids as they get out. I flip down the sun visor to check my reflection in the mirror.

‘Can you hurry?’ He glances behind to check for a gap in the line of queueing cars.

I hesitate, then snap the visor back up, pull my bag higher and collect Lilly’s lead from the footwell.

‘I’m sorry, Cass.’ He quickly brushes his hand through his thinning hair. ‘I’ve a busy day.’

‘It’s fine.’

He pecks me on the cheek. I open the car door and Lilly jumps onto the pavement. I step out and close it behind me.

‘What time are you finishing tonight?’ I ask through the open window, my fingernails digging into the fabric strap of the lead.

‘Eight. You know, usual time.’ That means nine. ‘Bye. Love you.’ He waves and the left corner of his mouth turns up, like it always does when he’s searching for forgiveness.

I stand with the kids in front of a digital board projecting the words Bushey Plateau Primary, followed by the slogan ‘Life’s cool in school’.

Danny isn’t in a rush to go in.

‘You’ll be okay.’ I push his sandy hair out of his eyes and remove a stray leaf from his fleece, which he wears whatever the weather. He lets me put my arm round him for a few seconds before he shrugs me off. He knows what he likes and dislikes.

‘Ellie, could you show your brother to his new classroom?’

She gives me the big outward breath thing she’s been trialling over the holidays.

‘I can’t wait for high school,’ she says. ‘Where there are only girls.’

‘That’s two years away, sweetheart.’ I hold my arms open. ‘Hug?’

‘I’m not five years old, Mum.’

‘Okay. Maybe after school we can go to the beach and get a frozen yoghurt.’

‘If you want,’ she says, but I know she likes the idea. She always twirls her hair when she’s pleased.

Black Honey Espresso is conveniently located one hundred metres from the school gate, just across the road. It has black metal chairs and umbrellas printed with gold bees. While waiting at the crossing with Lilly, I notice the kindy kids arriving.

‘Oh,’ I hear one mum call out as she clings to her son’s tiny hand. ‘I’m going to miss him so much!’

Don’t worry, I think. You’ll be shouting into his little face again soon enough. Parents are embracing their kids tightly, like their children are being evacuated during the London Blitz. But this journey is only filled with never-ending packed lunches, hours at Easter-hat parades and sitting through endless award ceremonies in the desperate hope your kid wins a medal.

At the coffee shop, Lilly laps water from a bowl. The cafe is busy. I strip off my white gym top to reveal a shorter one under­neath. If I suck in my ribcage, I can get away with it. I tie up the dog and nip inside to order. The owners, Noah and Sam, have piercings in random places and their wedding vows tattooed on the inside of their fingers. The cafe smells of warm banana bread.

‘Cass, how are you?’ asks Sam. She’s wearing a singlet with the words Blink-182 I Miss You on her chest. An ironic choice. A band from an era when I was hanging out in dark sweaty clubs, a good decade before she was even born.

‘Yeah, good thanks. First day of freedom. I need caffeine.’

‘A double shot, then?’

‘How about a triple?’ I laugh and use my phone to pay.

While I wait outside, I spot a tall, dark-haired man trying to make his way inside. I recognise most people who have kids at the school, but I’ve never noticed him before.

I open my phone. I bought myself a new phone case, which is cute. It has ‘Cassie’ in gold writing on the back. I’ve a message from Jon – this morning’s photo of Ellie and Danny. My gorgeous children.

I change the filter to Lark, post it to Insta and add the hashtags #newyearnewstart #grateful #blessed.

‘Cass,’ calls out Noah. I like how his South African accent makes the ‘a’ in my name sound like an ‘eh’.

‘Thanks,’ I say, collecting my drink. ‘You coping? Lots of new parents around.’

‘Just about,’ he says, already back to steaming milk and lining up new cups.

The man returns and sits at a table with a girl who is about three. He pulls off his sunnies. They look like the same ones worn by Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born. The similarity causes the throb behind my eyelids to disappear.

He reaches to help the child with her pink cupcake. He’s younger than me – thirty-five at most. His hair is shaved close to his scalp, and he has brown eyes that crease at the corners. His style is casual chic: a tight-on-the-arms t-shirt, slim-fit cream pants, slip-on shoes. And he has a tattoo. I concentrate on making sense of it and finally work out there are seven birds flying from his wrist to his bicep, shimmering against his skin.

The memory of who I used to be shifts like the core of a dormant volcano. I lick my lips. I wish I could apply a new layer of gloss, but it’d be too obvious. This hasn’t happened in a quarter of a century. Of course I’ve noticed attractive men since I got married, but not in this hit-by-a-truck kind of way.

He licks the icing from the tips of his fingers, looks straight at me, laughs and winks. Winks!

Everything stops. There’s a roar in my ears. The layer between my epidermis and dermis simmers.

‘Hi,’ I say, and raise my coffee in the air because I don’t know what else to do.

He silently mouths the word ‘hello’.


Everything is Perfect Maxine Fawcett

Cassandra seems to have it all – but behind her perfect façade she’s barely hanging on.

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