Excerpt for Christmas in Canberra by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


Christmas in Canberra

Nicole Taylor


Copyright 2017 Nicole Taylor

Published by Brunette Publishing at Smashwords




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Dedication


This book is dedicated to all the wonderful women who have advised me, listened to me, assisted me, befriended me; and especially to those who helped me celebrate.

Even when there was nothing to celebrate.

You know who you are.



Disclaimer

This is a work of fiction.

Any resemblance the characters may have to persons living or deceased
is co-incidental and unintentional.



***


She lacks the indefinable charm of weakness.”

Oscar Wilde


***


Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter16

Chapter17

Chapter 1

BANG BANG BANG!

What was that? Through the mental fog, Louise tried to identify the sound that had woken her. Gunshots? Hammering? Louise was dragged from sleep as quickly as her hangover allowed and scrambled out of bed. Completely disoriented now, she turned in a circle beside her bed trying to claim consciousness and her dressing gown.

BANG BANG BANG!

Peering cautiously round her bedroom doorway while fumbling with the ties to her gown, Louise could see the glass door to her basement unit shuddering in response to the pounding knock of her landlord, who lived with his wife in the house above.

“Coming,” she called, thinking “For God’s sake – it’s Saturday – isn’t it?” She got to the door and opened it slightly, trying to hide her state of semi-attire from her visitor. She was immediately blasted by the brilliant morning sunshine which shone mercilessly into her now squinting eyes.

“Hello, Mr O’Neil,” she said politely, hoping he wouldn’t smell last night’s rum & coke on her breath as she shrank further behind the door and away from the bright light.

“Hello, there, Louise.” Mr O’Neil seemed thrilled to find her in sleepy disarray. Louise, quite horrified by his delight, hugged her dressing gown more closely and squeezing the door a bit more shut.

“Just wanted to let you know that we will be going away for a few days, to the beach house.”

“Oh, lovely,” said Louise. “Have a nice time!”

“You won’t forget to water the garden, will you?” Mr O’Neil was keen to justify – and, it seemed to Louise, prolong – his completely unnecessary visit. They had discussed these arrangements two days ago when she had paid her rent – in advance, as usual.

“No, no – of course not,” smiled Louise, closing the door even more. “Don’t you worry – it will all still be here when you get back. Bye bye!” And she had shut the door before finishing her last “bye”.

Her sister, Marie, had taught her that trick. Marie was a legal secretary and had to deal with some pretty irate customers. “What you do,” she advised knowingly, “is this: You start speaking really sympathetically and assertively, so they like what they are hearing and can’t get a word in. Then – you hang up on yourself.” And she was right – it was the most brilliant strategy. Louise was still perfecting it, of course, and she would never have Marie’s confidence and panache, but she was nothing if not a diligent student.

She stumbled into the shower, knowing she would not be able to get back to sleep now. Running the events of the preceding evening though her mind as she presented her face to the glorious shower of steaming hot water, Louise was greatly relieved to be unable to think of an especially embarrassing moment, or register any awareness at all of that deep feeling of fear she often woke up with when she had actually said or done something ridiculous but couldn’t remember exactly what it was. The trouble with drinking was that it led to a total loss of inhibitions which were clearly there to protect you in the first place. Uninhibited behaviour often resulted in loss of dignity, and a moment’s fun could easily melt into a week of shame. “Oh well,” Louise finally gave up her morning-after audit and shrugged resignedly. “Hopefully everyone else was too drunk to notice.”

The coffee was definitely clearing her head and, having already heard the O’Neil’s station wagon pull out of the garage and drive off, Malua Bay bound, Louise happily settled herself, her coffee and her Benson & Hedges in the courtyard outside her unit, to dry her hair in the sun. She smoked and drank leisurely, fluffing her hair absentmindedly, reliving the more memorable portions of the previous evening.

*

It had all begun quite comfortably. The usual gang had met at Simon’s for dinner. It was a combo-celebration: Louise had finished her graduate degree after too many years of night-time study; Simon had planted the last shrub in his now showpiece garden and Kim had been promoted – again. Added to that, on the previous weekend the whole group had done a tour of the local wineries and stocked up for the summer. A dinner party was all that was required to congratulate each other and taste the spoils.

“Well, Simon, I suppose we have to admit that all your labour has paid off,” Alex acknowledged grudgingly. Simon’s select group of friends, including Louise, were sitting under shade umbrellas on the terrace at the front of his verandahed home, enjoying the garden, the wine, and each other’s company.

Simon chuckled and sat back with a very pleased expression on his face.

“Do I detect a note of envy, Mr Malcolm?” he enquired.

“Not a note, you bastard – I’m really jealous. All those weekends I sat inside watching Debbie Does Dallas while you were shovelling and digging and planting and building retaining walls – and you end up with a terraced garden, Debbie’s still doing Dallas, and what have I got?”

“A har—” Simon was stopped from finishing his word by Kim, who popped a bite-sized savoury into his mouth.

Alex’s girlfriend, Jenny, laughed with shock.

“Here, have one of these,” said Kim, handing around a plate of delicious little pastries.

“Ooh – yummy – thanks, Kim,” said Louise gratefully. Kim was an innovative cook and always came up with tasty things at their frequent get-togethers. Louise pretended to compete with her, but it was a friendly battle which Kim always won and Louise was happy to lose. “Are you going to Melbourne for Christmas this year?”

“Well,” Kim answered cautiously, “we thought we might stay home this Christmas, and do something here.

Before she could explain, the doorbell rang and Simon got up to answer it. Louise looked around – surprised. Everyone she had expected to see was already here. Had they invited the neighbours? Having met them previously, Louise hoped not. As the only single woman – person – in the group, she was often the focus of any male ‘friend’ who had been married so long that he had forgotten how lucky he was to find a wife; or worse – was married to such a good actress he believed that she was the envy of all single women. Married women had a lot to answer for, and they only fooled their husbands.

But Simon returned with a very presentable male person. “Everyone, this is Gordon,” he said to no one in particular. “Gordon, this is Alex and Jenny, Louise, Tom and Judith, and you already know Kim.” Simon turned to the others and said “Gordon has just joined the Canberra office. He is from Sydney.”

Everyone, especially Louise, smiled their welcomes. Gordon was tall, with fair, curly hair, and very good looking. He was around thirty years old and had clearly made use of the Sydney beaches because, unlike the lily white Canberrans, he sported a well-developed, even tan. Louise felt a tingle as Gordon settled himself in the chair beside her.

“This is very civilized, Simon,” Gordon accepted the stubby Simon handed him with what could only be described as a toothpaste-commercial-quality smile.

“Well, we aren’t complete barbarians out here in the snowy mountain district, you know,” Simon bantered. “It might not be Sydney, but we have other amusements.”

“Oh – so you do get the Sydney television stations here, then?” Gordon countered, and got a laugh.

“Sydney television stations?” Simon feined surprise. “I will have you know that we have no need of your crappy commercial rah rah. We have the Paynes!”

“The what?” Gordon was playing along.

“You have much to learn, my child,” Simon said mockingly. “You are now in the Illawarra tablelands, and new rules apply. The Payne family has run the commercial television station in this area for generations – since television first aired here. We have Mr Payne, the owner of Canberra-Goulburn Television; we have Sharon Payne, his daughter in law, who reads us the news, and his son, Rick, who decides which items of news we really want to know.”

“Is Sharon attractive?” Gordon asked.

“Ye – I wouldn’t know,” Simon nodded his head while casting adoring looks at Kim.

“She is short and has a pretty face but really huge thighs.” Kim provided the details.

“How can you tell?” asked Judy. “She sits behind the news desk – you can’t see her thighs.”

“I saw her in the supermarket a while back.” Kim explained.

“Wow!” Judy was clearly pleased with this titbit. “Big backside too?”

“Monolithic.”

Gordon watched this interchange and laughed. “So,” he interrupted the women, “let me get this straight. We have only one local commercial station –”

“We are getting two more this year –”said Alex.

“One TV station,” continued Gordon, “with a married, overweight newsreader –”

“So far, we are no different to the Sydney television stations.” Louise thought she had better say something, otherwise Gordon might forget about her, or worse – he might think she was too stupid to contribute. Gordon turned his full attention to her, and a really sweet smile, as if to say that his ploy to get her to speak had worked. Louise noticed it and plunged on, not wanting to lose him now.

“Aren’t all the Sydney newsreaders overweight and married, too?” she finished with a shrug.

“Yes,” agreed Gordon, “I suppose they are.” He smiled and turned back to the group. “But they are men so it doesn’t matter.”

Louise, Kim and Judy howled their disapproval and all the men laughed at how easy it was to take them.

And so the evening had progressed. Drinks had become dinner as the summer sky changed around them. Baby blue became blotted with pink; the pink melted into mauve; and at last they sat under an indigo summer night sky, sparkling with a thousand stars.

*

“You met him where?” Margot’s disbelief vindicated Louise’s own. “You never meet interesting men at Simon’s. The only men he ever has over are Alex, the guy with the porn habit, and Tom, the petrol head.”

“Tom is a vintage car enthusiast, Margot,” Louise corrected her friend.

“Whatever. Anyway, both of them are sexist, unattractive, boring and practically married – something for which, I might add, the entire single female population of Canberra owes their women a debt of gratitude. There are already enough unattractive, dull men for us poor spinsters to wade through.”

“Is that why you don’t come to Simon and Kim’s soirees anymore?” Louise asked.

“No – not really.” Margot had finished packing her gym bag and was waiting for Louise, who was only a minute behind her. “Kim annoys me. She is “nice”, but she never really says anything without checking with Simon first. I always feel like a buffoon around her.”

“You?” Louise looked Margot up and down, taking in her neat, womanly figure and long, straight, shining, chestnut hair. “She makes me feel like that – but you?”

“She just annoys me,” said Margot defensively. “All that ‘In Melbourne, it’s classy to wear black’. And ‘In Melbourne, everyone plays tennis’; and ‘In Melbourne –’”

“Oh I know – does she really think we care?” laughed Louise. “If Melbourne is so great, why did she leave?”

“Single women travel away from home for one reason only,” advised Margot seriously. “They are looking for men. Kim came to Canberra to poach our guys!”

Louise was agog. “Were you ever interested in Simon?”

“No! Of course not!” Margot was adamant.

“So? Who cares?”

“It’s just the principle of the thing.” Margot was insistent. “If you want to migrate – you should bring your own bloke. We barely have enough to go around as it is.”

Louise laughed. “But then Gordon would have had to have brought a gorgeous, suntanned Sydney woman with him and I wouldn’t be ‘in lerv’!”

“Hhhmm,” acknowledged Margot, “I suppose there is always that aspect to things.”

“Oh, yes!”

“But we cannot spend the rest of the morning talking about Gordon.”

“Just a minute more?”

“No. I have to go.”

“Where?”

“I’m meeting Mum at the mall.” They were at their cars now, and Margot jumped into hers. “See you later,” she called through the open window as she started the engine.

“Right,” said Louise as she waved Margot off. “I might as well drop in on my Mum, too.”

*

Mary looked around her big, airy, newly renovated kitchen, and thought how glad she was that Christmas would be held at her daughter Jane’s this year. The renovation had been an exhausting interlude and now she wanted nothing more than to enjoy the results. Large windows overlooked a generous backyard and half a dozen apricot trees, still abundant with fruit. Off in the distance, the city and parts of Lake Burley Griffin were visible, dominated by the obelisk silhouette of Black Mountain Tower. It was a beautiful morning in early summer, with a clear blue sky and a tingle in the air. Typical Canberra weather.

In a few months’ time, they would sit in the kitchen and watch the hot air balloons crowding the sky like painted Easter eggs wobbling on a bright blue blanket.

But Mary was not concentrating on the view this morning. Her thoughts were inwardly focused as she congratulated herself on having reached this point in her life. 48 years old, still beautiful, married almost 30 years, the matriarch of her family.

Mary and Jim Keats had 5 grown children. Louise was the oldest, then Michael; Jane was the middle child, James was next and Marie was the baby. Only Michael and Jane were married, though, and only Jane had children – which was probably why Mary was closer to her than the others. When they were growing up, Mary had always felt closer to Louise. It was funny how things turned out.

The house was getting to be just right at last. The Keats family had recently moved from the large family home they had built in Belconnen in the early 70’s, to this smaller house in Farrer, Woden Valley. It had 3 bedrooms when they bought it, but Jim had knocked out the walls between the 2 front bedrooms, and then the wall between the resulting room and the entrance hall, so that there was only one bedroom left. From the front hall, there was now a large dining room on the left, the walls of which were lined with bookshelves – all neatly crammed full, and on the right, an equally large lounge room.

The one remaining bedroom ensured that none of their kids would consider camping at Mum and Dad’s should their fortunes fall. Mary smiled to herself as she thought how neatly this had been accomplished.

At that moment Louise walked through the front door which was open as usual in the summer, disturbing her mother’s reverie. “Garden’s looking good, Mum,” she said by way of greeting.

Mary inwardly groaned. She just wasn’t in the mood for Louise this morning, who “dropped in” almost every day; on her way home from work; or on the way to Jane’s or Marie’s. Why couldn’t she get her own life and leave them in peace? She met her father in Civic for lunch almost every week – wasn’t that enough?

Mary looked at her daughter and saw exactly what she expected to see. Louise was dressed in a pair of those hideous stretchy trousers, running shoes and a large sloppy pullover. None of the dull, washed- out colours suited her – or anyone else that Mary could think of – and Louise’s very pale, clean skin and plain brown hair did nothing to distinguish her appearance.

Hoping to discourage her from staying, Mary replied “Oh. I was just going out.”

“Oh, okay,” said Louise, confused. “Is Dad home? I didn’t see his car.”

“No, he’s doing the bun run.” Jim volunteered with the St Vincent de Paul society one Saturday of each month, delivering the unsold bread which was donated by local bakeries to various homes around Canberra. This was affectionately termed the “bun-run”.

“Would you like a lift somewhere?” Louise asked, congratulating herself on being so magnanimous considering Mary’s rather ungracious reception. Knowing that her mother didn’t drive, Louise was surprised to hear of her intended outing in the absence of her father – and the car.

Mary sighed, realizing her error. “No, thanks. I was just going out to do some gardening.”

“Right,” said Louise, stifling her annoyance as she took note of her mother’s white linen slack suit and newly painted nails. “I’ll get going, then.”

“Alright then, bye,” said Mary, more cheerful now.

“So,” said Louise, as she retraced her steps out the front door, “will you be okay to bring the nuts and lollies to Jane’s for Christmas dinner?”

“Yes,” Mary said, rather testily, Louise thought. “We got our copy of the roster, don’t worry.”

Louise stopped and looked at her mother in surprise. “Oh, right,” Louise turned and walked towards her car. “See you later, then.”

Mary walked back into the house to avoid having to wave.

*

“Jeez!” Louise exclaimed as she took the mug of coffee Marie handed her. “That is the last time I drop in on her!”

Marie laughed. “You always say that,” she scoffed. “So, what’s her problem this time?” As she spoke, Marie examined her reflection in the large, ornate mirror which hung on the wall opposite a deep bay window. The mirror reflected her view of mature silver birch trees which were almost level with the second floor unit. Sunlight dappled through the flickering leaves as they were stirred by the light breeze. Marie twisted her thick, wavy black hair around her hand and assessed the result with her head to one side.

“You’re gorgeous, so drag yourself away from the mirror and come and sit down.” Louise patted the seat beside her on the sofa as she spoke. “I don’t think Mum is too keen on the roster, actually.”

“Oh, the roster! Yes, you really got them going with that little document, didn’t you?” Marie dropped her tresses and sat down beside her sister.

“I don’t see why everyone is so bent out of shape about it. Especially Mum! I only put it together so that she and Jane wouldn’t get stuck with all the work. Why is Mum so upset?”

“Dad is ticked off by the roster, so therefore Mum gets to be mad at you, too.”

“She needs a reason? She has been weird to me ever since I didn’t marry Stuart – and that was 8 years ago now.”

“Is that when you stopped being the Golden Girl?” Marie was interested. “I wondered when it all began. I thought it was a “Roxanne” thing.”

Roxanne was Michael’s wife. She had never cared for any of Michael’s sisters, but she was very popular with Jim and Mary.

“No – it’s just that Roxanne arrived on the scene at the same time as Stuart and I broke up. Your timing is correct, though.”

“Oh, I get it now. Well, I’m not married – how come she can’t stand me, too?”

“Because even though you are 20, the same age I was when Stuart and I broke up, she thinks you’re too young to get married!”

“I see.” Marie sipped her coffee. “So, if I stay single till I am 28 like you, Mum will be permanently peed off with me, too?”

“Probably not,” admitted Louise. “You are the baby of the family.”

“So?”

“So, you could be 50 and you will always be the baby of the family. It’s not fair, but it is just one of those things.”

“Sorry,” Marie smiled smugly at Louise.

“Gee – you don’t look sorry!”

“I’m not!” The girls laughed at each other. Marie tried to put on a cherubic face while fluttering her quite substantial eyelashes, and Louise rolled her eyes, shook her head and groaned.

“Besides,” Louise added, “ with the amount of make-up you wear – no one will ever be able to tell how old you are.”

“You’re just jealous because I’ll always be the baby.”

“No – seriously – when you were 16 you looked 24 and when you are 40 you will still look 24! How do you do it?”

“Well, I think it is because I have a tiny little nose, and –“

“No, I mean – how do you get so much make-up to stick to your face?”

“What?”

“If I tried to put on that much make-up, it would simply slide off. My face reaches the make-up saturation point really quickly.”

“Is that why you never wear any, and walk around looking like a bloke?”

“Yeah – a bloke with two enormous humps growing out of his chest!”

“Enormous? Please! My boobs were bigger than yours are now before I even reached puberty!”

“Yeah, right. It’s not fair, though.” Louise returned to the original topic. “If I put on any more than a bit of mascara and a smear of lipgloss, my face looks like a plate of fruit salad!”

“That’s the acne, dear.”

“Oh – nice one! Thanks a lot.”

“You’re welcome.”

“Actually, I’m thinking of avoiding the whole Keats family Christmas disaster thing and spending it with friends this year.”

“Really? Who?” Marie ran down the list of Louise’s friends in her mind, all of whom were, in her view, boring, over-educated and single. “Margot? Pat?”

“No – Simon and Kim.”

“Oh, is Simon still going out with her?” Marie sniffed.

*

Louise had met Simon when he was at the ANU and she at Canberra University. He had been seeing her then-best-friend, Katherine, whom he had met late one night at Trix, Canberra’s version of a new-wave disco. Katherine had long since abandoned Canberra – and Simon – but the friendship between Simon and Louise had lingered. He was originally from Tasmania, and after he met Kim, who came from Melbourne, Louise had become part of their urban family. It included one or two other couples, none of them actually married; all out-of-towners who got together when extended families usually did, in the absence of theirs. Louise, the social outcast of her own family by virtue of being the only offspring who had gone to university like her father, instead of marrying at the first opportunity like her mother, found their company contemporary and revitalizing.

Simon, like most men, had been captivated by the young, beautiful and curvaceous Marie, who enjoyed his attentions but did not return them. Nevertheless, she felt antagonized by the existence of any woman who pretended to peel away one of her admirers. Like most beautiful and hot-blooded women, Marie was assertive, possessive – and great company.

“Yes, he is – God only knows why!”

“Oh! Me! Me! Pick me!” Marie bounced up and down on the sofa, stabbing the air with her straightened arm like a schoolgirl. “I know why!”

It was clear to them both that Marie was going to suggest that Kim had bedroom-related abilities that enchanted Simon, so Louise played dumb. Instead, she changed the subject.

“Hey – why does Dad hate the roster?”

“Because he is on it!” Marie didn’t even need to consider the question.

“What?” Louise frowned in confusion. “What do you mean? Everyone who is going to be at the Christmas dinner is on it. That is the whole idea. We all go out to work. Why should Mum and Jane do everything just because they are mothers? They are working mothers! And why should you and I help them while the guys sit around and drink beer? It isn’t as though it is a BBQ and the men will be doing the cooking.”

“Sam won’t be drinking beer,” Marie conceded knowingly.

“No – good old Sam gets his buzz calorie free.”

“And since when has Dad ever helped around the house?” Marie pointed out the critical flaw in Louise’s reasoning. “He is peed off about the roster because now Mum has to do his share as well as hers – and everyone will know it.”

“You are kidding me.”

“Do you really think that Dad is going to clear the table and scrape half-chewed food scraps off the dishes?” Marie laughed at the thought. “Come off it!”

“Wow – this is scary!” Louise was shaking her head. “I now know how Dr Barbara Theoring must have felt when she first unscrambled the truth of the scriptures from the Dead Sea Scrolls. I’m shaking the very foundations of Life as we know it – messing with beliefs that underpin our whole social structure.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Don’t you worry your pretty little head about it, baby girl.”

“Oh, shut up.” Marie suddenly stopped and pointed at Louise. “Aha!” she exclaimed. “I know why you want to have Christmas at Simon’s! Yes – you are trying to avoid doing your rostered job!”

“What?”

“Wait till Mum – and Dad – hear about this!”


Chapter 2

Jane loved her new house – especially the kitchen. She loved the cathedral ceiling, and the balconies overlooking the kitchen from both the upstairs playroom and the hall outside the master suite. Sliding glass doors led out to the patio, which was excavated from the rising landscape of the back yard and finished with quarry tiles, letting sunlight into the room all day. The room was painted a pale, gum-leaf green and the floor was laid with a large, off-white, porcelain tile.

All her fittings were stainless steel – the fridge, stovetop, wall-oven, microwave, even the top of the island table. On Christmas day, she would have the patio decorated and the market umbrella opened up over a central table which would bear all the food. Chairs with side tables would be set against the retaining walls. On one side, the kitchen opened onto a large family room which, with its deep sofas and central location, would provide a comfortable retreat for older relatives if they got tired of the heat outside, or just felt like a change.

On the opposite side, the formal dining room, not needed that day, could serve as a gift opening forum, overlooking the lounge room as it did. The lounge, which lay 5 steps below the level of the dining room, was at the front of the house and commanded a sweeping view of the entire Tuggeranong valley. Jane had placed the Christmas tree – the biggest one she could find – against the French windows so that you had to see the view whenever you looked at the tree. And what a tree! Jane thought it her best yet. She had gotten the idea from David Jones, the department store they had been patronizing since they were kids, when it was the only one in town. Only huge, silver baubles and tiny white electric lights adorned her tree, which was at least 2.5 metres high. Jane thought it picture perfect. This was going to be her Christmas. The one she had always dreamed of having. Her beautiful home, her handsome husband, her adorable children – a girl and a boy – she’d even lost that pesky few kilos that usually annoyed her all summer long. Yes – this was her time of triumph.

Jane had the general appearance of a baby doll. Her round blue eyes, flawless fair complexion and wavy golden-brown hair perfectly suited her diminutive 5 feet nothing stature. As the middle child slash daughter, she had never been upheld as the brains nor the beauty of the trio. But now – she was the successful one – “a real woman” her father had pronounced her. Motherhood had seen her blossom, while the years had diminished the surprise of Louise’s accomplishments. It had been astonishing that Louise was so brainy when she was 17 – but now that she was a 28-year-old single accountant, who cared?

And even Marie’s beauty, combined as it was with a withering wit, had the overall effect of scaring off girlfriends and male admirers alike.

Yes, Jane wouldn’t change places with either of them. Now she was the popular one – the true centre of the family. Her mother preferred her to both her sisters now. Even Roxanne dared not criticise Jane behind her back – something she regularly did to both Louise and Marie.

Jane didn’t like to admit it to herself, but this was one of the things she enjoyed most about Roxanne’s company. Never before had she met anyone who so openly and unrestrainedly – and with such fervor – criticized her two sisters! Till Roxanne came along, Jane’s sisters could do no wrong in the eyes of her entire family. Louise was the one everyone deferred to, and sought for advice – and Marie was the beauty of the family. Jane was barely noticed – until the day she got married. She was the first one in the family to do so – and when she immediately produced a grandson and, barely a year later, a granddaughter, her superior status was sealed.

At first, Jane had been shocked to hear Roxanne speak so disparagingly of her sisters in front of their parents. But that shock had been replaced by even greater surprise when she witnessed Mary’s mild response – actually, it was more like tacit agreement – with Roxanne.

“Don’t tell me Louise is changing jobs again,” scoffed Roxanne.

“Is she?” asked Jim. Mary, Jim, Roxanne and Jane were sitting at Mary’s kitchen table, drinking coffee, while Michael and Sam, Jane’s husband, were outside inspecting Sam’s new work vehicle. “Who told you that?”

“Oh, I have a friend who works at Defence, and he asked Michael if he knew Louise, since they have the same last name.”

“That is so ‘Canberra’, isn’t it?” said Mary. “Before too long, everyone knows someone you know!”

“She must have applied for a promotion there since she finished her graduate studies,” said Jim.

“God – did she actually end up finishing that? Amazing!” Roxanne was dismissive. “It took her long enough!”

To Jane’s shock, both her parents laughed and nodded in agreement.

“Yes, I thought she would exceed the time limit and miss out. But she made it. It is hard, though, working full time and studying.”

“It’s a breeze compared to raising a family!” Roxanne contradicted her father-in-law. Not surprisingly, Mary agreed strenuously with that statement.

“But you won’t get any thanks for raising a family, Roxanne.” Mary’s mouth was set in a bitter twist as she spoke. Jim looked decidedly uncomfortable now and prepared to collect his paper and repair to his study, a lair he had carved out for himself under the house, in a sort of “walk out” basement area. “No thanks at all. But anyone who has a degree – no matter how useless – will get promoted these days.

“Ah,” thought Jane. “So it’s like that, is it? Hate is a more binding force than love, and Roxanne has discovered Mum’s weak spot. Fancy my missing that!” And then she had another epiphany. The very fact that Roxanne had so quickly and easily discovered Mary’s penchant for sympathy told Jane that Roxanne paid attention to Mary – something no one else in the family had done for years. Jane suddenly saw that Roxanne had immediately recognized Mary’s suppressed anger towards her eldest daughter, and was validating that anger by criticizing Louise. Jane was hooked. Suddenly, she felt an unfamiliar sense of affirmation, and she saw Roxanne with new, more intimate eyes.

*

“So, how did it go, the interview over at Defence?” Phil enquired of Louise, as they each made themselves a morning coffee.

Louise smiled, wondering if Phil was really hoping that she’d get the job – a promotion, in fact, which would place her at his level; or if he was just amazed at her nerve for actually applying for it in the first place. Or was he simply wondering whether he would be called upon to ratify the fairly textbook reference he had provided? She was under no illusions that Phil or the other “Tax boys” thought highly of her. She hadn’t come up through the ranks as they had – she had been promoted into the Tax Office from a chartered accounting firm, much to the chagrin of the “occupying forces”, and her applications for internal promotion had been ignored ever since. But, since Louise had been studying at night and the Tax Office was close to the university, she was determined to stick it out there till she graduated.

“Well,” she answered, “I think it went alright. Let me know if you get a call – that will be a good sign.”

“Oh, yes, I did get a call, as a matter of fact,” Phil said.

Louise was taken aback. “So soon?”

“Yes,” smiled Phil. “They seemed to think that you have a graduate degree!”

“I do have a graduate degree.”

“A degree, Louise, from a university.” Phil spoke softly and kindly now. “You are doing an accounting certificate, but they think you have a degree.”

Louise’s heart was thumping angrily now. “Phil, I am not “doing a certificate”. I have a degree. A graduate degree. I have both a bachelor’s degree and a graduate degree. From the University of Canberra.”

Phil paused, shocked. “What?”

“What did you say to them?”

“I, er, I thought – I didn’t – er, Leonie – “ Leonie Eaton, another supervisor, had joined them in the coffee room, oblivious to the tension.

“Hi Phil – Louise,” Leonie was a tall, attractive, athletic, professional type; very intelligent, not very chatty, better qualified than any of her peers and the only female manager in the office.

“By the way, Louise – congratulations. I hear that you finished your graduate diploma at the university.” Leonie acknowledged kindly. “I did that one, too – I’ll bet you’re glad it’s over.”

Louise smiled at Leonie and glared at Phil.

“Yes, I am. I was wondering, Leonie – would you mind giving me a reference? I applied for a promotion at Defence and there seems to be a problem with my referee.”

“Sure,” said Leonie. “Just give me the name and number to call.”

“Thanks, I will.” Louise left, stifling her annoyance.

It was too ridiculous. Surely that sort of attitude had passed with her mother’s generation. Did these men seriously lead such sheltered lives that they still thought educated women wore bi-focals and long, baggy skirts? Louise stopped at her desk just long enough to extract her ciggies, then lent over and jabbed the woman who sat across from her in the arm. “Smoke time Vera,” she announced, waving the pack at her friend.

“Oh. OK,” Vera threw her pen down and her head up and followed Louise out.

Once outside on the footpath with the other morning smokers, Louise related the coffee room conversation to Vera, who laughed. “Why are you so surprised?” she asked. “Phil’s wife is a nurse, and Phil himself has only just finished his B.A. part time by correspondence.”

“So?” Louise didn’t grasp the relevance of either of these comments.

“So – he naturally assumed that he was better qualified than you. Oh boy – are you in for it now!”

“What do you mean?” asked Louise, finally paying attention. She had vented her spleen to Vera, but hadn’t anticipated an actual conversation.

“Well, now that Phil realizes that you are not only better qualified than he is, but have the same qualification as Leonie Eaton; and given the EEO mandate that more women must be represented in the managerial ranks of the department – he won’t be able to help himself. He will have to prove that you are inadequate and inferior to him in any way he can.”

“What about Chris Hardy?” Chris was Leonie Weston’s level and yet another supervisor.

“What about him?” asked Vera.

“Well, does the same apply to Chris?”

“No – for one thing, you have the hots for Chris, which I think he rather enjoys; and for another, he is good friends with Leonie and Mark Eaton, so I think Phil is the one you need to watch. Oh – and Greg Dawkins.”

Greg Dawkins was the section head.

“Why Greg Dawkins?” asked Louise. “And how did you know – I don’t have the hots –“

“Why Greg Dawkins?” Vera was disbelieving of Louise’s ignorance. “Greg is another Phil! Neither of them was accepted at the University of Canberra, which is why both of them got their degree by doing a correspondence course. And,” she added conspiratorially, “Greg’s wife weighs about 90 kilos.”

“So?”

“So – that makes us ‘the enemy’!”

“Why? Because we are not able to find a man to marry us, and therefore have to work and study for qualifications so that we can stay employed, while other women get men to go to work to support them, so they can stay at home and have kids?”

“No; because we are competition for them in the promotion arena, and wouldn’t go out with them even if they were single!”

“How do you know all this stuff, Vera?” Louise was in awe of her knowledgeable friend.

“Aagh – I’m Rrrussian, darlinka,” Vera rolled her R’s on “Russian” very impressively and put on her Babushka accent. “Ve know vot goes on in zee vorld.”

“Shit,” groaned Louise. “Well, I just hope I get this promotion, then.”

“Have you read Defence’s annual report?”

“Their what?”

“Geez Louise, good thing I’m here to look after you!” Vera was only 5 years older than Louise, but mothered her nonetheless. “It’s no good just knowing how to do the accounting – you have to impress them with the knowledge you have about their department and what they do. That “closes the gap” between you and an internal applicant. The annual report will tell you who the big-wigs are; why the department exists in the first place; what the big issues were last year; what the plans are for this year and what the “buzz-words” are. Then you can speak their language.” Vera finished her cigarette and stood on the butt to extinguish it. “It is no different to applying for a job at a multinational company.”

“But I’ve already had the interview!”

“The first interview – once they speak to Leonie, you’ll be called back for another interview. I’ll coach you.” Vera linked arms with Louise as they headed back upstairs to the office.

“You know,” Louise whined “all I really want is to look pretty, and earn enough to support myself.”

“I know, dear,” said Vera soothingly. “Me, too.”

*

Jim Keats loved family events. He still found it hard to believe that out of what had seemed like endless years of endless chaos, this fabulous family had emerged.

He was especially proud of Michael, his eldest son and second child. At first, he had despaired of Michael ever finding his place in the world. Although a very intelligent boy who excelled at field sports, Michael and been the scourge of the poor nuns all through Primary school. He couldn’t sit still and refused to follow instructions. In Grade 5, all the boys left St Thomas More’s convent school and went to the brothers at Daramalan. There, Michael had been the star of the cricket and football teams, both of which Jim coached, but he had generally played truant from every other class.

During his teens Michael had fallen in with the wrong crowd – not bad boys, any of them, but they seemed to attract trouble. They brought it all on themselves, Jim had to admit, but his paternal understanding did not extend further. None of his other children had given them any trouble – why was Michael different?

So, Michael had gone from one Catholic boys school to another, usually having been asked to leave the one and accepted on probation at the other; and upon turning 15 years of age had promptly left school. Having movie-star looks and a disarming smile, he had quickly gained employment with a left-wing, overseas-aid operation and commenced work as their printer’s boy.

And that had been that. Jim, who had been a straight A scholarship student, and had an economics degree at a time when not everyone finished high school and fewer still went on to university, wondered why his son had chosen to make his own life so difficult. Jim was happy to put Michael through university – wanted to do it for him. But Michael had enrolled himself into technical college and the five year long course to be a lithographic printer. At the end of it all, he had been named “apprentice of the year” and now managed the biggest printing operation in town, and was more highly paid than any of the others – something Louise often pointed out when she complained about the cost of her own studies.

Jim couldn’t be more proud of his son. Tall, handsome, an accomplished sportsman, a well-known member of the growing, privately-owned business community in this otherwise government town, Michael embodied all that young manhood should in his father’s eyes. He was, in many respects, a self-made man – that highest of accolades, and one Jim aspired to himself. And Michael relied on his father’s input in all the important decisions in his life.

Sometimes Mary complained at the level of financial support they had contributed to Michael’s business ventures over the years, but Jim loved being a necessary inclusion. Sure, Michael needed more money to fund his plans. What young man didn’t? And how many rich men had rich fathers? Almost all of them. Well, Jim might not be a multi-millionaire, but he wasn’t poor, and if he wanted to help his son, he would.

“It’s not fair, though,” Mary had protested the last time she’d discovered that Jim had helped Michael out financially. “What about the others?”

“What others?” Jim didn’t want to be talked out of his decision. He was able to make Michael’s dreams come to life by injecting money. Michael always turned to his father for solutions and so far Jim had never let him down.

“The other kids!” Mary was losing her patience. “What if they all wanted as much help as we have given Michael?”

“They don’t, do they?” Jim was horrified by this idea. “Louise has never asked us for money. Jane doesn’t need anything – she and Sam are better off than we are. James is perfectly happy and Marie only ever wants the odd dress, or pair of shoes.” Having acquitted himself of the charge, Jim was comfortable again. “Michael is the only entrepreneur in the family, and I am his silent partner.” Sensing that Mary remained unconvinced, he added “Besides, Mary, it is my hard earned money and I’ll spend it however I like.”

“I see.” Mary was terse. “So, I can like or lump it, I suppose?”

“Why would you want to stand in Michael’s way?”

“I don’t want to stand in anyone’s way – but I do want everyone to stand on their own two feet, without having us propping them up!”

“We’ll benefit if Michael profits,” argued Jim.

“How?” Mary demanded. “And how will we even know whether Michael is profiting? He and Roxanne will have spent every cent before anyone can even count it!”

Jim was turned to his wife, eyebrows raised. “I thought you were behind Roxanne all the way,” he commented drily. He had heard a lot of the anti-Louise sentiment in the women’s conversations, and wondered where it was all headed.

“Roxanne’s not a fool,” answered Mary. “When she inherited all that money from her father’s estate, she put it straight onto the mortgage, which is entirely in her name – not Michael’s. Roxanne wouldn’t put a cent into his business – and she makes no bones about it.”

Jim knew this was true but till now, hadn’t realized that Mary knew it, too. But he was sticking to his decision.

“All the more reason why we should support him,” he said firmly. And Mary knew that there was no use in discussing it further.

*

Michael had only had one other serious girlfriend before meeting Roxanne when he was just 19. He had been chased by girls since he was 14 years old, but he was not a womanizer. Michael was lazy when it came to women, and would still be with his first girlfriend had she not dumped him just for the drama of it. Unfortunately for her, he was too lazy to chase after her and before much time had passed, he had met Roxanne who had not let him go. She was five years older than he; a strongly built, country girl, who made announcements rather than actually conversed with people. Jim and Mary immediately knew that she was perfect for Michael. She left no room for doubt or error – she was right and there was no other way. For Michael, who often lacked discipline and suffered from an inability to self-assess, Roxanne was the antidote to all his failings. So what if she didn’t invest in Michael’s latest scheme? She had taken on Michael, hadn’t she?

They had married soon after his 22nd birthday. Because of Roxanne, Michael would always have a home and a family, despite his ill-fated schemes.

This Christmas was going to be a real family event. Jim was bitterly disappointed that it wouldn’t be held in his own home, though. The whole place was so beautifully set up now, and they wouldn’t be having Christmas there. It was a real shame. Jane and Sam’s place was bigger, but Jim never really felt comfortable accepting Sam’s hospitality. He would be merely a guest, rather than the father, father-in-law and grandfather. Sam tended to lord it over everyone when they were at his house, and anyway, Jim preferred to be on his own turf. He didn’t mind Sam, who was a hard worker and a decent provider, but he thought him too hard on his young son, and Jim disapproved of the surreptitious dope smoking. He should have outgrown that by now, Jim thought critically. Dope smoking was something teenagers did – not grown men with families.

Chapter 3

It was Friday night, and the Hyatt Hotel – previously the historic Canberra Hotel – was filling up. Well-dressed business people sauntered across the lawns, by the prolific roses and up the stairs past the liveried doorman. The reception area was beautifully decorated in the style of art nouveau, with marble floors and columns, ebony fixtures and French windows opening onto courtyards to both the left and the right. The right-side courtyard was the largest, and now held many of the as yet unmarried graduate employees of the nearby government departments. The Hyatt was well placed beside what was known as “the Parliamentary trangle”, within walking distance of the departments of Treasury, Finance, the High Court, Prime Minister & Cabinet, and Foreign Affairs. Employees from other departments drove to gather there on Friday nights, so Defence, Immigration, Social Security and the Tax Office were also represented.

A male pianist and a female singer in the reception area made music that flowed out into the crowded courtyard, where drinks waiters in dinner suits kept the various conversations oiled.

“What do you think?” Margot asked Louise as she watched the young singer performing a light hearted jazz number.

Louise had never known Margot to take any interest at all in the entertainment, and looked more closely at the singer.

“Oh my God – is that Claire?” Louise asked and Margot nodded, trying to contain her huge smile.

“Not bad, huh?” said Margot, acknowledging that the singer was her little sister.

“She’s fantastic, actually. I had no idea – I thought she was still at school!”

“Nope. Got out last year.” Margot was one of nine children, all of whom had done a stint at the Catholic boarding school in the rural town of Yass, chosen by their parents to “finish them off”. Margot had seen it as a cruel and unusual punishment, and had spent most of her mid-teens plotting her escape. On about the fifth occasion, her parents had given up and enrolled her in the local school which Louise attended. “She has been at the Conservatorium since then,” added Margot, “doing piano and voice.”

“Well, she got this gig, so clearly she is a professional musician, regardless of her student status.” Louise took a glass of champagne from a passing tray and paid the waiter. “How come we never did anything like that?”

Margot laughed. “God – would you want to?”

“Yes, I would! Look at Claire – she is having a great time and she’s being paid!”

“I’d rather be here, enjoying the performance, than up there, giving it.” Margot sipped on her cocktail. “Besides, all the men are down here with us.”

“True. Good point.” Louise took a break from scanning the room for interesting faces and turned to her friend. “How come you don’t meet guys at work?”

“Adrian is married.”

“No – not your boss. I mean your clients. There you are, in your little uniform, bending over them as they lay back in the big chair – they are totally captive! How can you miss?”

Margot guffawed at Louise’s description. “I’m a dentist, Lou – not a nurse! For one thing, I’m holding a drill in their mouth; a sure fire turn-off if ever there was one; and for another thing, men don’t go to the dentist between the ages of 18 and 60. Thank God women do, otherwise I wouldn’t have a job.” Margot paused to sip her drink. “No – I’ll never meet my true love at work – which is why I am forced to do the bar circuit when I am not taking Kon Tiki tours of the western world.” She pulled a face at Louise. “Anyway – you should talk! You’re an accountant. You work entirely with men. What’s your excuse?”

Louise sighed. “Male accountants marry as soon as they finish university.”

“But don’t they risk marrying too soon and missing out on someone better?”

“That’s what we have been raised to believe, but the opposite is true. Having spent years learning how to measure and avoid risk, the young, ambitious accountant nails down as much of his future as possible, as soon as possible.” Louise paused, then added “Remember how many guys we had chasing us when we were 20? Now we have to find out whether the man asking us out is married – or worse – if he is paying child support for 3 kids under the age of 8.” Louise shook her head slowly. “At our age, the pool of available men had been shrunken by those enemies of all spinsters seeking partners: marriage and travel.”

“You said it, sister.” Margot replied in agreement. “But there are still one or two floating about.”

“By the time you meet them at work, they have wives and babies.”

“Chris Hardy doesn’t have a wife or kids.”

“He isn’t an accountant. He’s an economist.”

“There’s a difference?”

“Big difference.” Louise held her hands apart as though preparing to clap; about 9 inches apart.

Margot laughed, spluttering her drink. “You are revolting!”

“Crude, rude and totally undesirable, darl!”

“He doesn’t think so,” Margot pointed her drink towards a nearby group of men.

Louise looked over in time to catch a smile and salute from Gordon. She turned abruptly back to Margot. “Margot – that’s him! Gordon – from Simon’s dinner party. Sydney Gordon!”

Margot peered discretely over Louise’s shoulder. “Very nice,” she said in her best low-purring voice.

“Stop!” hissed Louise. “Stop looking!”

“I’m just checking out the group he is with, to see if there is any talent”

“Are there any girls with them?”

“No, not yet.” Margot took a sip of her drink and surreptitiously shifted her view to another section of the courtyard. “But if we don’t join them now, there soon will be.”

“OK,” Louise stood up straight. “One, two, three –”at which point they both laughed at each other in a much-rehearsed style, and moved languidly towards Gordon’s group.

“I was wondering how you could ignore me for so long,” Gordon said teasingly. “I’ve heard how snobby you Canberra people can be.” He was smiling his heartbreaking smile and Louise could barely breathe.

“It was only a short walk – you might have come and said hello yourself.” Louise pretended to be at ease.

“But then I would be forcing my company on you. Don’t women hate that?”

Louise ignored this comment, and introduced her friend. “Gordon, this is Margot.” She turned back to him. “I’ve already told her all about you, so there is no need for any further introduction.”

“What did she tell you?” Gordon asked Margot.

Louise quickly interrupted, shooting Margot a fearful look. “Oh, just that you are from Sydney and work with Simon.”

“So, you told her everything you know about me.”

“Pretty much,” agreed Louise.

“Tell me, then, what do the good-looking girls in Canberra do on the weekends?”

Before the girls could answer, a man from Gordon’s group spoke up. “It’s a ritual pub crawl, Gord. Friday night: here, at the Hyatt; Saturday night: the Private Bin; Sunday: the races, if there is a big one on, and the Boot and Flogger if there isn’t; and if you are still not worn out, and want to join a big crowd, the Ainslie Footy Club has a live band on Sunday night. There is a smaller thing on at the Manuka footy club too.” He turned to Louise and Margot. “Am I right?”

The girls laughed. “That’s right,” said Margot. She said to Gordon “Stick with this one – he will look after you.”

“And it is the same every week?” Gordon asked his friend, disbelievingly.

“Not only is it the same each week, but the same 500 people show up to all of them! By the way, I’m Peter,” he said, turning to Margot and Louise and hold their hands in turn.

They exchanged greetings and Gordon waved down a waiter.

“No – no – let’s go and eat!” Peter shooed away the waiter before he could take any orders.

“Fine with me,” said Gordon. He turned to Louise. “So, see you tomorrow at the –“

“Private Bin, mate,” added Peter helpfully as he put down his empty glass and prepared to leave. “But right now we are going to Manuka for dinner.” He addressed the girls and said “Nice meeting you.”

“We’ll be in Manuka, at the –” Gordon looked questioningly at Peter.

“Santa Lucia’s,” Peter provided the details.

“Santa Lucia’s, if you feel like joining us,” Gordon added, then smiled as they departed.

“OK,” said Louise. “See you later.”

Watching them leave, Margot asked Louise “What was that?”

“What?”

“The ‘see you tomorrow’; ‘we will be in Manuka’? Was he asking you out?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I didn’t think so, either.”

“It was more of a ‘you can hang around with us at your own expense and I won’t have to pay for you or chauffeur you around’ sort of thing, I think.”

“That’s what I thought, too.” Margot bought drinks from a passing waiter and handed one to Louise. “So, do you want to go?”

“No, not like that. Do you?”

“No.”

“He’s cute, though, huh?”

“Very, very cute. Gorgeous in fact.” Margot sipped her drink. “You know,” she added thoughtfully, “It’s OK to be like that – casual, no strings, when you aren’t really attracted to the guy, but if you are –“

“And I am –“

“-then it is deadly. You have started your whole relationship on a casual, no strings attached basis from which it is impossible to recover.”

“I know. Best to avoid him for a while.”

“So, we had better give the nightlife a miss for the rest of the weekend. Otherwise he will think you are OK with his evil scheme.”

Louise nodded, sighing. “He so knows I’m interested. Well, I’m sure he will find lots of girls who are more than happy to slot into his freebee, non-dating lifestyle. I just won’t be one of them.”

“We have to draw the line somewhere.” Then Margot brightened up and added “Let’s go to the races, though. It’s the Canberra Cup this weekend – everyone will be there and we couldn’t possibly run into him in that crowd. We have tickets to the Member’s Stand, thanks to Rachel, don’t forget.”


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