- Published: 1 May 2019
- ISBN: 9780143792109
- Imprint: Viking
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 368
- RRP: $32.99
Oblivious to the golden morning awakening around her, the chorus of birdsong and the heckling of kookaburras in the ghost gums, Maggie swam laps of the pool. As she alternated laps of freestyle and breaststroke, beyond the pool the bay was a sheen of light, and white yachts bobbed gently at anchor. But her thoughts were focused on the day ahead. She was dreading this afternoon’s meeting with her husband, Kristo, and his three brothers. There was always shouting at these meetings, and today would be worse than usual.
As Maggie pulled herself out of the pool, she looked up towards the house and noticed that her mother-in-law, Yia-yiá, was already busy sweeping the deck. She was at war with fallen leaves and couldn’t understand why Kristo and Maggie wouldn’t see sense and remove all the offending trees. It was a month since Yia-yiá had moved in and already it felt like years. Maggie had only half-believed Kristo when he said it would ‘just be for a week or so’. Respite, he had called it. His mother had been in some sort of conflict with another resident at the retirement village, and they all needed time out. Privately, Maggie thought it was all part of Yia-yiá’s master plan. She’d never wanted to live in a retirement village, and Kristo, who craved his mother’s approval, didn’t take much convincing to bring her home.
Maggie sat on the edge of the pool and felt the rivulets of water trickling down her arms. Lately she’d had the strangest sensation that she was living someone else’s life and she couldn’t quite work out how she had got here. One minute she was a laughing girl with her life ahead of her, the next thing she knew, she had hurtled through time and arrived here. She looked out across the glittering bay to the open sky beyond and wondered for the hundredth time if it was all worth it. She already knew the answer. She could barely remember a period in her life when she had been so deeply unhappy.
In the years when they were establishing the family construction business, although stressful, it was also exciting, and she hadn’t questioned their direction in life. Family meetings were celebrations of new contracts won and projects completed; of money in the bank. In those days, the whole family would come together to eat and to talk. She got on well with her sisters-in-law and, within a few short years, there were cousins who played together. That was long before they lived here in Bayview in Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Back then they filled a modest brick house in the inner-city suburb of Marrickville. But everyone knew that the Dimitratos family were a dynasty in the making, and Maggie believed herself to be an integral member of the team.
As the financial controller, Maggie liked to consider the business in terms of balance and buoyancy. In the beginning, it was like a rowboat with too many passengers and everyone trying to seize control. As the business flourished, the boat got bigger, more comfortable and stable. These days, she seemed to be the only one who fully understood that it could still sink. If a project the size of the one they would discuss this afternoon went under, it had the potential to take them all down with it.
Today, the only thing Maggie could look forward to was packing an overnight bag and getting into her car. She would then turn off her phone and enjoy an hour of peace while she drove to Rose’s place. As they did every year, Rose and Maggie would prepare a simple meal, and Fran would join them via a video call from London. They would celebrate forty years of friendship and, for a few sweet hours, become the laughing girls they once were.
Right now, that seemed too many hours away.
She wrapped a towel around her and wandered up to the house.
On the bedside table, her phone showed four missed calls from Anthea, and three from Elena, and she felt the familiar twist in her gut. It could be something quite small, she told herself. Elena was probably calling on Anthea’s behalf. It was a twin thing she had got used to; right from when they were babies, her daughters tended to wind each other up rather than calm each other down. She really wanted a shower before having to deal with whatever was going on but the phone rang again and she took the call.
‘Mum! Where were you? I’ve called you a thousand times!’ Anthea sobbed.
Now Elena was calling at the same time.
‘Hold on! Just give me a second.’ Maggie put on her reading glasses and messaged that she’d call Elena back. Her anxiety was diminishing by the second – they were both fine. It was just a fresh drama that would be resolved in either minutes or hours.
‘Okay, what is it, darling?’ Maggie asked in her kind, understanding voice. ‘Try and calm down . . . Could you blow your nose? I can’t really understand you.’
Anthea spoke between shuddering sobs. ‘I need to come home. I’m getting a divorce.’
Maggie wondered if there was any way that she could fob her daughter off until she’d had that shower. Unlikely. She switched to speaker and put the phone on the bed while she peeled her wet bathers off and put on a cotton robe. ‘All newlyweds have their ups and downs, Thea. You just need to talk things through with Aaron, calmly and sensibly. You can work it out. Why is Elena ringing me too? What’s her involvement?’
‘About the divorce, obviously! Are you even listening? Shit! ’
‘Darling, this is between you and Aaron. Please don’t involve your sister. He doesn’t need you two ganging up on him.’
‘Ganging up?’ Anthea screeched. ‘You haven’t even asked what he’s done.’
Maggie took a deep breath. ‘Do I really need to know? Think about this, please. I don’t really want to be involved in your marital disputes. I especially don’t want to know the details —’
‘He filmed us having sex and put it online.’ Anthea waited breathlessly for her mother’s reaction.
Only a year ago Anthea was radiant in a froth of white tulle, walking up the aisle of the Holy Trinity on her father’s arm. Now this. The little shit.
Maggie had never really liked Aaron, but having been treated as an interloper herself, she had made it her business to welcome him into the family. Yia-yiá always maintained that he wasn’t good enough for Anthea but Maggie dismissed this dislike of outsiders as un-Australian; a throwback attitude imported from the old country. Yia-yiá referred to him as a vlákas: an all-purpose Greek insult that in this context translated to an idiot. She was turning out to be right. What the hell was he thinking?
The horror of her beautiful daughter’s private moments being shared around the globe was overtaken by her realization of the widening circle of affected parties. Kristo would not deal well with this – and nor should he – but his brothers would go crazy. She heard herself whispering, ‘Shit . . . shit . . . shit . . .’ as each new thought occurred to her. How could they get the video taken down? Was this a criminal matter? Police or lawyer? Or both? Yia-yiá would blame Maggie, always insisting she was too lenient with the girls. Kristo would blame her too. They would all blame her.
‘Mum, say something! It’s disgusting and the comments . . . they’re so filthy . . .’ Anthea began wailing loudly.
‘Don’t look at the comments. Don’t tell your father. Don’t do anything. Just wait a minute and let me think, for goodness sake.’
Anthea bawled, hiccupping like a child, and Maggie felt her insides being squeezed and twisted, her throat choked with tears. For twenty-seven years she had protected her girls from all the predatory males of the world. She couldn’t protect them from this. She couldn’t protect them from anything now they were adults.
‘What will Yia-yiá say?’ Anthea sobbed. ‘I could die. I wish I could be swallowed up by a huge earthquake and buried underground.’
The sheer melodrama of this wish brought Maggie back to earth. ‘Okay, let’s deal with everything when you get here. Do you want me to come and help you? Just bring a few things; we can sort out everything later.’
‘Elena’s coming over now.’
‘Isn’t she at the salon today?’ asked Maggie.
‘It’s a family emergency, Mum! You worry about the most stupid things!’
‘Listen, darling. I need you to send me a link to the video. I’m not going to look at it but I need to contact our lawyers . . . I won’t look, I promise.’
Her phone beeped. Maggie stared at the link as though it radiated danger and she knew that, sooner or later, she would be forced to look at it.
‘I’ll be here waiting, Thea. We’ll get it taken down. Don’t worry about it for the moment. Just drive carefully and stay off your phone in the car, please. Where’s Aaron now?’
‘He’s gone to his mother’s place. I was looking for something on his laptop and found it in the history.’
‘Why were you looking in his history? What were you looking for?’
‘Argghhh, do I have to answer all these questions?’ Anthea paused and came to terms with the fact that she did. ‘I wanted to see what sort of porn he was watching; that it wasn’t anything . . . you know . . . weird . . .’
‘What? What do you mean by weird? Actually, I really don’t want to know —’
‘Mum, I just need you to fix it. I’m not the criminal.’
‘Okay, okay . . . just pack a few things and come over.’
‘Fine,’ said Anthea and she was gone.
Maggie lay down on the bed. She was cold from the pool and not drying herself properly. She reached over and pulled the bedcover over her for a moment of comfort. Possibly the last today.
Yia-yiá appeared in the doorway. ‘Why you lie down? Swim. Lie down. You sick? The boys come today. We cook now. Páme! ’
Páme – let’s go – was one of Yia-yiá’s favourite expressions, as if everything could be solved by moving. Maggie didn’t want to move, and she especially didn’t want to start cooking. Yia-yiá accepted that Maggie had an important role in the company, but didn’t see that role as superseding the vital task of feeding her sons. It was assumed Maggie would fulfil both obligations equally. Yia-yiá adored her boys, and they were inordinately proud of her. At eighty-two years old, she could barely read or write but had all her own teeth, sonar-like hearing and twenty-twenty vision. She didn’t miss a thing.
More than with all her other grandchildren, Yia-yiá was besotted with the twins. They were the first born, and having twins was special and almost magical to her. It would completely break her heart if she found out what had happened.
Maggie would have to cancel on Rose and Fran this evening – there was no way out of it. Tears of self-pity stung her eyes. Her friends asked nothing of her apart from this one time together, once a year. One time when she could relax and be herself, not be in charge, and not be making everyone else feel okay. The idea of letting her friends down was devastating. Rose’s husband, Peter, had gone away for the weekend so the two women could have the house to themselves. And Fran looked forward to this so much.
The family meeting was set for four o’clock. Maggie made a mental note to check there was plenty of beer in the downstairs fridge. Maybe she could present her case for cancelling next week’s concrete pour, then leave them to argue it out and be on the road to Rose’s by five. She’d have to be absolutely uncompromising about escaping. Right now, all she felt was a crushing grief at the public exposure of her daughter’s intimate moments.
‘Okay, Yia-yiá, mia stigmí – one moment.’ Maggie only had a few Greek phrases and used them routinely to reassure Yia-yiá that, even though she wasn’t the preferred Greek daughter-in-law, she was still a good daughter-in-law. She closed her eyes and felt the old woman’s breath on her face.
‘You look sick, paidí mou.’
Maggie always felt a softening towards her mother-in-law when she called her paidí mou – my child. She could be a brittle, unforgiving, stubborn and demanding old witch, but then she got to you when you least expected it.
‘I’m fine. I’ll have a shower and be down in a moment.’
Maggie rolled over towards the wall and pulled the bedcover with her. She felt so cold. She sensed Yia-yiá was still there and waited for her to realise she was dismissed.
‘I calls Kristaki mou now.’
‘No, Yia-yiá, please – he’s busy. Just leave it. I’m fine.’ There was a moment of silence followed by a shriek and a torrent of Greek. Maggie rolled over to see Yia-yiá staring at her mobile phone screen, her face distorted with horror.
‘Yia-yiá! No! Oh, God!’ Maggie leapt off the bed, caught her foot in the covers and fell heavily on her knees. Yia-yiá let the phone slip from her fingers to the floor. She looked down at Maggie, her eyes full of tears, her mouth forming words that never came out before she rushed from the room. Maggie could hear her ragged sobs all the way down the hall until the door of her room slammed shut.
Not bothering to get off her knees, Maggie picked up the phone. What she could see, even without her glasses, was that Anthea, astride Aaron, was looking towards the camera, which was set to one side. Puzzled, Maggie grabbed her glasses from the bedside table, slipped them on and saw in sharp focus that Anthea was not only looking at the camera but pouting like a sassy porn star. After a moment’s consideration, Maggie deleted the message. There was no point in going to their lawyers with this. It was a timely reminder of how little she understood her daughters, let alone their relationships with men.
To avoid being seen by their teachers or anyone in the frum community who might dob Yonatan in, they ignored the tram stop outside the 7-Eleven on the corner of Hotham and Balaclava and opted for one further down the road.
She stood before us, without notes, books or nerves. The lectern was occupied by her handbag.
The thirty-year-old mother of Madeline Zott rose before dawn every morning and felt certain of just one thing: her life was over.
Why is it that just when you think you have all the answers, life starts asking all the wrong questions?