- Published: 4 August 2020
- ISBN: 9780143794219
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $32.99
The Sister’s Gift
On the morning Freya went into labour, she told no one. She simply walked onto the Magnetic Island ferry, found a padded seat near an open window and focused on the seagulls lined up along the jetty. While the birds dived for fish among shell-encrusted pylons, Freya took deep, steadying breaths, just as she’d practised at the antenatal classes.
We can do this, Butterfly.
Fortunately, the ferry wasn’t crowded, but it rocked as it left the island’s sheltered bay and headed across open water to Townsville. The jerky movement brought a wave of nausea, accompanied by a fiercer and longer contraction. Biting back the urge to whimper, Freya closed her eyes and breathed even more deeply as she gently massaged her enormous belly.
Her solo journey had never been part of the Official Plan, but more a last-minute impulse. After nine long, often trying months, the baby girl was about to arrive, and Freya had been gripped by an unexpected need to experience the momentous event on her own.
Selfish? Perhaps, but there were limits to her generosity.
Just the same, she’d never expected the labour to progress so quickly. First babies were supposed to be drawn-out affairs, weren’t they? As the island’s boulder- and pine-studded headlands receded, another contraction came, closer and stronger than the last.
The twenty-minute ferry ride seemed to take forever and when the boat finally reached the dock in Ross Creek, the young fellow in charge of tying up to the pier was tediously slow. Tourists jostled on the wharf, impatient to hurry on board for a day on an idyllic tropical island. Freya swayed unsteadily as she stood, felt dampness down below and had a flash of panic.
Not now. Hang on, Butterfly. Please don’t rush.
Praying that her waters would remain intact until she reached the hospital, Freya made her way down the ramp, moving slowly, cautiously, for the first time in her life hanging onto the railing like a little old lady. And as another contraction arrived, the decision to take a taxi to the hospital was a no-brainer. She couldn’t possibly drive the little rattletrap Honda she kept in the ferry’s car park for use on the mainland.
A mere three hours later, Freya made the necessary phone call.
‘Pearl, she’s here.’
‘What? Who’s there?’
‘The baby. She’s arrived.’
‘Oh, my God. How —?’
‘She’s so cute. I think she looks a lot like Troy.’
‘Freya!’ Pearl’s voice was frantic. ‘Why didn’t you tell me? You knew I wanted to be there. Troy’s on night shift this week. He could have come, too. We both wanted to be there. You knew that.’
‘Sorry.’ Freya looked down at the bundle of miniature perfection in her arms, reliving the enormous sense of achievement and excitement that had overridden the pain when this little girl slipped sweetly into the world with only a minimum of assistance from the midwife. ‘It was all a bit of a rush.’
‘But we had everything planned. We told you so many times that we wanted to be there for the birth.’
Pearl’s voice was sorrowful. Accusing. Almost certainly, she was crying, but Freya refused to feel guilty. ‘She’s here safely, Pearl. That’s the main thing.’
‘I suppose . . .’ Her sister’s voice squeaked and then, sounding more like her usual bossy self, ‘Have you expressed colostrum?’
‘Not yet, but I will.’
‘It’s very important, as you know.’ Freya could imagine Pearl’s stern frown now, the earnest expression in her pale blue eyes that could make her look years older than she was. ‘Troy and I will be on the next ferry.’
‘You won’t actually breastfeed, will you?’
‘No, Pearl. I’ll stick to our agreement.’
‘Right. Yes. Good.’ Less certainly, ‘Of course you will.’
‘I promise, Pearl.’ After a beat, ‘She’s yours.’
‘Well, yes. Of course she is.’
Freya let out her breath slowly. She hadn’t wanted to make trouble today. True, she hadn’t obeyed the rules they’d set out, but she was sure she’d earned this treasured window of time alone with the small creature she’d carried for so many months.
She looked down at the baby’s sweet pink perfection. Her skin was so soft, her tiny, tiny fingers and diminutive ears so exquisitely faultless. The baby screwed up her face and love swelled in Freya to the point of bursting.
‘It’s over to you now, Pearl,’ she said bravely. ‘To you and Troy.’
There was no mistaking the relief in her sister’s voice.
Twenty-four years later, on the Sunshine Coast
If Freya had known she was leaving her home for the last time, she wouldn’t have rushed. She certainly wouldn’t have grabbed her car keys from the hook in the kitchen and dashed for the door, only stopping to briefly check her hair and lipstick in the hall mirror.
She would have taken time to admire the late-afternoon light as it bathed her front hallway in softness and warmth. She would have stopped for a final, loving look at the little English oak table she’d inherited from her grandmother. She might even have run her fingers over the collection of water-worn stones that she’d brought home from holidays abroad and set in a glass dish on the table.
Or perhaps she would have smiled at the blue pottery vase filled with flowers she’d bought at the supermarket yesterday, simply because they’d looked bright and cheerful – and because she’d deserved a little cheer.
Actually, if she’d had any inkling of what was about to happen, Freya probably would have hugged the vase to her chest – and the bowl of stones and the little table – hauling them out the door to safety on the front lawn.
Or she would have raced back to the sunroom she’d turned into her studio and grabbed her artwork. Most certainly, she would have scooped up her little dog, Won Ton, and taken her safely into the car, instead of leaving her in the laundry with her basket and supper.
Sadly, the major events in life rarely come with a warning. Freya had learned this a year ago, when Brian had arrived home on a Friday night and made his shocking announcement. And now, this evening, she had no idea that another disaster lurked. Besides, she was running late, so of course she was rushing.
Which wasn’t unusual. Freya had an aversion to arriving anywhere too early, so she often left her preparations till almost the last minute. Inevitably, this meant that getting ready for any event was a somewhat frantic business.
She knew it was a bad habit. It had driven Brian mental. During their marriage, each time they’d gone out, he’d hovered by the front door, scowling down the hallway, tapping a foot or jangling the car keys impatiently, with Freya still in the bedroom, desperately trying to finish her makeup, or her hair, or setting her scarf just right. Possibly, Brian’s new wife found him just as impatient.
Was it terrible to hope this was the case?
But eventually, this evening, Freya was ready. As she backed her car out of the garage, leaving the door raised for an easy return – another thing that would have irritated Brian intensely – her thoughts were entirely on the evening ahead. A funny, feel-good movie was planned with her girlfriends, followed by a cosy meal and a good old chinwag at one of their favourite restaurants.
As she headed down the street, she did catch a glimpse of her house in the rear-view mirror, sitting sedately in the curve of a quiet cul-de-sac behind a lush, green clump of palms. Her home, with white weatherboards and large windows framed by pale-green French-style shutters, made her smile. It was still her happy place.
The one thing she had left.
The night was cold by Queensland standards, the café cosy and Mediterranean in mood, with rustic stone walls and floors warmed by glowing braziers. Tempting aromas of tomatoes, garlic and herbs wafted. A dresser bore oversized candelabras dripping stalactites of wax, and through the curving arches on the terrace, a clear winter sky glittered.
Freya, Daisy and Jo grinned as they clinked their wine glasses. Their movie had proved clever and droll, leaving them in a happily mellow mood.
‘It’s so good to be out with you girls again,’ Freya told her friends once she’d taken her first delicious sip. ‘Thanks, I really needed this.’
Daisy and Jo nodded with sympathetic smiles. They were trying to cheer her up, of course, a tactic not all that different from the one she and Jo had employed to help Daisy through her grief after her husband had died. A divorce wasn’t quite the same as a death, of course, but for Freya it felt almost as bad.
Perhaps she was being self-indulgent, but in her case, there’d been a sense of shame about Brian leaving her, a feeling of failure and the underlying message that she’d been deemed unsatisfactory.
Hastily she axed these negative thoughts. ‘I’m managing okay, truly.’
‘Of course you are,’ affirmed Jo. ‘I’ve always thought you were wonderfully balanced and centred.’
Freya almost elaborated on how very unbalanced and off kilter she’d felt during the past months.
Luckily, Daisy launched a distraction. ‘How are you finding the art classes?’
‘I love them.’
‘I didn’t know you were artistic,’ said Jo.
Freya laughed. ‘Neither did I, really. I hadn’t picked up a paintbrush since high school, but honestly, messing about with watercolours is so much fun. Really rewarding. I might even have a skerrick of talent.’
‘I’m sure you have masses of talent.’ Daisy was always wonderfully loyal.
‘And I’m kind of getting into gardening,’ Freya added. ‘Not quite at your level, Daisy. I only really managed with pot plants while I was working full time, but I’ve started growing veggies. Well, just cherry tomatoes and lettuce, but at least I’ve started.’ She might as well pile on the positives. It actually made her feel better to list these recent milestones.
‘I don’t suppose you’ve tried dating?’ Daisy asked with a tentative, almost apologetic smile.
‘I have, actually.’ Freya grimaced as she admitted this. ‘Just the once though.’ She’d run into the fellow at the supermarket, a former customer, a widower, and he’d asked her out for a drink, which she supposed counted as a date. He’d caught her on a day when she was feeling bored and maybe a bit lonely, so she’d agreed.
‘He wasn’t my cup of tea,’ she said. ‘All he wanted to talk about was the stock market, his golf handicap and his amazing sons.’
Jo responded with a sympathetic eye-roll. ‘Don’t give up. I’m sure the right guy’s out there, but in the meantime, I’m so glad you got to keep your house.’
Good old Jo, always practical.
But, yes, at least she had the house. Freya had tried to feel grateful that she’d kept her lovely home, while Brian and Amber were renting a two-bedroom apartment in Mooloolaba, several blocks back from the waterfront with no hint of a view whatsoever. Gratitude didn’t bubble easily to the surface, though, after your husband had traded you in for a younger model.
Apart from the shock and the hurt, it was all such an embarrassing cliché, the sort of thing that happened to other people.
Not to Freya and Brian.
For heaven’s sake, they hadn’t been a run-of-the-mill married couple. They’d been lively and fun, throwing the very best parties, taking regular trips overseas, and they’d run a successful business together: Brian Bright’s Electrics.
For twenty years, Freya had managed the office, fielding phone calls, handling all the paperwork, balancing the books, wrestling with tax, keeping the place spotless and inviting for customers, windows sparkling, floors gleaming, pot plants thriving.
And now. She hadn’t just lost her husband, she’d lost her career. Replaced by Amber, a fluffy-haired, curvaceous blonde aged thirty-two.
Thirty-two? How ridiculous was that? And the biggest cliché of all – Brian had met Amber on the job, while fitting a new ceiling fan in her bedroom. Arrrgh. It was all so pathetic. And how on earth could Amber have fallen for a man past fifty, balding and grey, with a softening paunch?
It still hurt Freya to know she’d been so easily and eagerly replaced. She couldn’t begin to imagine the kinds of conversation Brian might have with a woman like that. Perhaps there wasn’t a lot of talk. It was all action of the bedroom variety, and she certainly didn’t want to think about that, but her imagination could be a real pain in the proverbial.
Freya consoled herself with the belief that it couldn’t possibly last.
Not that she would take Brian back. Hell, no.
‘We should check out the menu,’ she suggested now, having spent more than enough time dwelling on her issues. And once her friends had made their selections, she steered the conversation to their families. With no children of her own, she was always interested in what Daisy’s and Jo’s offspring were up to. Daisy even had a grandchild now, a dear, chubby little boy, just learning to walk.
Topping up their glasses, the women relaxed and let their chatter drift happily from the movie they’d just seen to Jo’s kids’ sporting achievements and Daisy’s younger daughter’s adventures in South America. Their meals arrived, wonderfully aromatic concoctions, artistically arranged on trendy stoneware, and Freya’s taste buds tingled as she speared her fork into a succulent prawn.
Their conversation moved on, through food and fashion to their extended families. Jo’s mother had moved into an aged-care facility. Daisy’s sister was training for the one-hundred-metres freestyle in the Masters Games. Freya hadn’t a lot to contribute, though, as she wasn’t in regular contact with her family.
‘I hear that Amber’s pregnant.’
This bombshell came from Jo, and was dropped gently enough, but it still landed on Freya with almost nuclear force. She couldn’t help flinching.
So. Word had leaked out.
‘Yes,’ she said dully. She’d been determined not to mention this news. It was just too painful to admit that Brian and Amber were to be parents. Brian – her Brian – was to be a father. Now. To another woman’s child.
After all the heartache of the first decade of their marriage – the miscarriages and bitter disappointments – this information, delivered just last week, cautiously, almost fearfully, by her ex, had shattered Freya’s heart.
‘I’m pleased for them,’ she said bravely now, but she couldn’t quite manage to smile.
Daisy reached out and squeezed her hand, her warm, sensitive smile conveying gentle understanding.
Even so, Freya was sunk into blackest gloom. The news of Amber’s pregnancy had been the absolute last straw, even harder to accept than the bald fact that her husband had grown tired of her. God knew, she’d been tired of him, too, but there was such a thing as loyalty, wasn’t there?
Shaking her head to scatter these thoughts, she squared her shoulders and squeezed out a grin that she hoped didn’t look too false. ‘Have I mentioned that I’ve repainted my bedroom?’
‘Now that’s an excellent idea,’ enthused Daisy. ‘New furniture, too?’
Freya shook her head. ‘I would have loved to chuck the bed, but I couldn’t afford to be so rash. I bought a new quilt, though, and bed linen and cushions.’
‘What’s your new colour scheme?’
‘Pink and orange.’ Freya allowed herself a smirk of triumph. ‘Not a shade of fashionable grey in sight. Brian would hate it.’
‘Oh, wow. Now that’s what I call sweet revenge. An orange and pink bedroom. I love it.’ Jo, the only member of the trio who still had a husband, was grinning. ‘Good for you, Freya.’
‘I must say it does cheer me wonderfully to wake up and see those ridiculously bright colours.’
‘Yes, it’s a stroke of brilliance.’ Daisy raised her glass. ‘Here’s to many more lovely bright mornings.’
As they clinked their glasses once again, Freya’s phone rang. It had, of course, slipped from the little side pocket in her handbag and was lying at the very bottom, beneath her money purse, a tangle of old shopping lists, her sunglasses case and her hairbrush. The phone had almost rung out by the time she finally retrieved it.
‘That’s funny,’ she said, as she glanced at the screen. ‘It’s from Louise Richards, my neighbour. Why would she be calling me at this time of night?’