- Published: 5 March 2024
- ISBN: 9781761347580
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 352
- RRP: $22.99
The Last Love Note
Two years ago
My phone erupts into Darth Vader’s ‘Imperial March’. I scoop Charlie off the polished concrete floor and lower him into the shopping trolley, shove AirPods into my ears and brace myself.
The custom ringtone was Cam’s idea. An attempt to cheer me up, after one of Mum’s cyclonic visits. She means well, and I love her dearly. But there’d been some argy-bargy as we transitioned into mother and grandmother. Cam thought the ringtone would give me a laugh next time she called, and it did.
Then he went and got sick. And now I can’t bring myself to undo his joke.
I can’t undo anything. I’m still paying his phone bill, just to hear his voicemail. A copy of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography is still facedown and spread-eagled on the bedside table, partially read. I can’t even declutter all the sticky notes he left strewn all over the house and through my car and in my handbag. Even his handwriting brings me to my knees—
‘I’m at the supermarket,’ I announce once I finally have Mum’s attention. She has a habit of calling me just before she’s actually available to speak – usually while she’s finishing a conversation with someone else. Cam called it ‘conversational limbo’.
I reach for his favourite soap. Inhale it. Pass it to Charlie in the trolley. He sniffs it too.
‘The supermarket?’ Mum repeats, as if she’s flabbergasted. Everything I do, no matter how mundane, seems to come as a shock to my mum. Always has.
‘Apparently life goes on . . .’ I explain, before looking into my near-empty trolley. It’s evidence that life has in fact come to a crashing halt.
Before he got sick, Cam and I took turns at being hunter and gatherer. He was stellar at both. Shopping aficionado. Home-grown master chef. And now that I’ve assumed both roles full time, I can’t seem to assemble an actual meal.
A ponytailed woman in activewear brushes past me in a cloud of perfume and competence. I watch as she selects a pack of tampons and a bar of soap, drops them into her basket and crosses them off her list with a flourish.
Was I ever like that? That blasé about soap? These people carry on as if the whole world has not been irrevocably shattered.
‘Listen, Kate, why don’t you and Charlie come with me to my Probus meeting tomorrow?’ Probus is Mum’s social universe. But she can’t seriously think I’m in the mood to attend a retirees’ club mixer with a three-year-old, while on bereavement leave?
‘Shirley Delaney’s husband just died too,’ she explains.
‘Mum, he was eighty-seven.’ I know this because she’s already told me about his lingering death in more detail than a newly bereaved person, or indeed anyone, would ever want to know.
‘Widowed is widowed,’ she proclaims, and tears spring to my eyes again. I’m thirty-eight years old. The term ‘widow’ should not apply to me. I need to get out of this conversation before Mum dismantles me in front of her impressionable grandson.
A teenage shelf-stacker, dragging an enormous trolley packed with shampoo and conditioner, starts kicking cardboard boxes out of the way on the floor near us. Our gazes meet, in the eye of my crisis.
‘Can I help you?’ he offers, reluctantly.
I shake my head. It’s clear that neither of us wants to be here. Nor does he genuinely want to help. I’m just in his way. Hopelessly lost, I want to confess. And not just in this supermarket.
Charlie has capitalised on my distraction by seizing a bottle of shaving foam from a display stand full of specials. I notice it just as one of the playgroup mums rounds the corner into my aisle. A friendly face!
I think she sees me, but she acts like she’s suddenly remembered dog food or toilet cleaner or frozen peas – anything. She reverses her trolley and shoos her twins back out of the aisle, away from the inevitable awkwardness of my existence. So now I’m a widow and a social pariah.
I look back at Charlie. He now has the lid of the shaving foam off and is pushing down hard on the pump with the heel of his hand, squirting foam all over his Fireman Sam top, tracksuit pants, sneakers . . .
‘Mum! I’ve got to go,’ I say, searching for some tissues in my bag. I pull out the wad of envelopes I’d grabbed from the letterbox on the way out. Sympathy cards. Bills. Something from the electricity company, addressed to Cam, which it shouldn’t be; I’d spent a frustrating half hour on the phone a few days ago, attempting to solve the seemingly insurmountable problem of our account being held in his name only.
‘The account holder is dead,’ I’d clarified miserably after the operator had told me twice that she was only authorised to speak with him. Really, I couldn’t have made it any plainer. ‘How do you expect me to bring him to the phone?’
Where are the tissues?
‘Charlie, don’t put that stuff in your mouth!’
I stop rummaging when it dawns on me that the envelope, addressed to Cam, has the words ‘We’re sorry to see you go’ emblazoned across the front.
I tear open the seal and unfold the paper. Dear Mr Whittaker, it reads. We’re sorry you’ve decided to leave us. Please take a few minutes to help us know how we might have better met your needs . . .
And there it is.
Rock bottom. Slamming into me in the men’s toiletries section, thirteen miserable days after the worst day of my life – brutal letter to my dead husband in hand, raft of personal items he’ll never use taunting me from all sides as the truth of my situation really lands. Properly. For the first time.
The man I love does not exist.
Does. Not. Exist.
He didn’t ‘decide’ to leave the electricity company. Didn’t decide to leave any of us. And now there’s no need to buy this soap, and too few names on our accounts.
‘Oh, Charlie! What a mess.’ I’m all-out sobbing now, the way I’ve longed to sob since the funeral and haven’t been able to. Of course the tears would come now, just as I’m trying to wipe shaving foam off everything using the envelope.
Some other time, it might be cute that he’s slathering foam on his cheeks and pretending to scrape it off his face with an imaginary razor. But not now. I flash forward to a time when I’ll have to teach him how to shave for real. I don’t know what I’m doing now, and he’s only three. The idea of raising a teenage boy without Cam’s insider knowledge fills me with dread.
‘Look at me, Mumma!’ Charlie’s bright blue eyes are alight with mischief, dimpled smile beaming through the white foam. He takes my hand and places it flat on the side of his face, just like Cam used to let him do when we were helping him shave.
‘I’m Dadda!’ he says, laughing.
I don’t think I can do this.
‘Eighteen starlit nights with you.’ Joshua Bouvier’s big brown eyes were determined.
It wasn’t the happiest of beginnings. Tilly tried to pretend it would be okay . . .
Six twangy notes of guitar were all it took for every man in a hundred-metre radius to unbuckle his belt, drop his pants and do a dumb dance in his undies.
My fifteenth birthday is stinging with a blistering heatwave. Balloons and streamers are dangling off the clothesline, motionless.
There aren’t many rules of singlehood, but I have made a few for myself in the two (if anyone asks, but really it’s four) years in which I’ve been single.
The October wind twirled coffee-coloured willy-willies south across the Queensland border.
Carra Finlay stood under the clothesline and watched in dismay as all her dreams blew away in the wind.
Madison Locke’s heart lifted like the birdsong that woke her that morning – joyous, clamouring, excited.