She’s become a connoisseur of fine gradations of heat. The different shades of cool on the hotel stairs. On the pavement, the glare of sun, then dappled shadow under leaves; crossing the road, reflected heat from tarmac. At the beach the white sand is almost too hot to scamper over. The sea is first a shock of cold, then perfect, the water subtly varied, warmer at the surface, cool swells from underneath. She’s swimming alone in the summer crowd under a fierce blue sky.
She’s come here on a last minute deal, to clear her head. It seems to be working; there’s not a thought in it. Or, rather, just the one, like a great bell that chimes every time her mind moves: baby. Baby. There’s one inside her now, about nine weeks along. It doesn’t show yet but she’s already gone up a bra size and her breasts tingle and ache. She falls asleep, face down, at eight o’clock each evening. Her body doesn’t need her; she can sleep and it will grow the baby without her. She ought to tell someone. The father – what a strange word to use of him, he’s a friend, he was lonely and so was she – he ought to know. But she floats suspended between the blazing sun and the sea.
A sudden flood of water in the face and she jolts upright, spluttering. Two boys chase past, shouting as they chop a furious crawl through the water. Now they’re on their feet and splashing each other, heedless of the people around them. A smaller boy struggles in their wake, teetering out of his depth. “Luke! Ryan! Joe!” Their mother (presumably) wallows towards them, scooping up the little one as she reaches him. The older boys ignore her. She’s plump in her floral swimsuit, tired at the eyes. The youngest wriggles out of her arms back into the sea. He’s about four.
“Rather her than me,” says a woman swimming in sunglasses and a hat.
“Yes, looking after those three must be exhausting.”
“They’re running rings around her. Mind you, in her place I’d be on a sun-lounger with a glass of sav, controlling the children through some form of tether arrangement. It’s a good thing I’m not a mother.”
“Tethers could be problematic. Someone might trip over them and then they’d come and shout at you.”
“Good point. Yes, the kids would have to stay behind. ‘Bye bye! Mummy’s off on a wine holiday in Victoria. Enjoy your maths camp.’ It’s the only way.”
This is an easy conversation to have and it continues as they leave the water and go up the beach; it seems they’ve picked neighbouring spots for their towels.
“A wine holiday?”
“I thought I’d come down here and check out the vineyards, tour around a bit, but I ended up on the beach, for today at least. I was expecting it to be cooler than Brisbane, but this week it’s hotter. My name’s Jamie. Yours?”
“And you’re a kiwi by the sound of it?”
“Yes, visiting from Wellington.”
“So not so used to the heat.”
“I like the heat. For a while, at least. It’s…it simplifies things.”
Jamie has a large beach umbrella, which she angles to shade both of them. She carefully reapplies sunblock to her long, gym-thin legs, followed by a slick of lipstick on her mouth.
“Never know when my prince might come,” she says, as though to herself.
The two boys are chasing again, this time definitely fighting, aiming kicks at each other as they scramble onto the sand. Their furious passage takes them directly towards Jamie and they knock into her umbrella, tipping it over so the shaft sharply strikes her.
“Fuck! Why can’t some people fucking control their children.” Pain punctures Jamie’s cool.
“Are you ok? Where did it get you?”
“Shoulder. Doesn’t seem to have broken the skin.” She squints sideways to look. “Bloody hurts, though. Seriously, those kids could use some boundaries.”
“Would you like some ibuprofen? I’ve got some in my bag.”
“I’d like a drink. I’m getting off this beach, it’s too hot now anyway. Come with me and let me rant at you about how much I hate the young.”
A few yards away the mother is expostulating with her sons, and now the eldest approaches, his posture exaggeratedly slumped. “Sorry,” he mumbles, not meeting Jamie’s eyes.
“I should think so,” says Jamie. “No, alright mate, apology accepted. No need to do that, we’re going anyway.”
He was clumsily attempting to re-erect the umbrella, but now he stops and trails back to his mother. Jamie and Catherine pull dresses over their rapidly-drying swimsuits and pack up their things.
“This is the perfect after-beach wine. People are snobby about chardonnay, but a good chardonnay is like changing into a clean silk dress. Have a taste.”
Catherine takes a cautious sip. Her own glass contains sparkling water.
“It’s quite citrusy?”
“Grapefruit rather than lemon, and that dry finish. This is the Montalto. They have a Tuck’s Ridge chardonnay here too so I might try that next – I haven’t tried that before but I’ve heard good things about it.”
“I went on a wine tour around Wairarapa at the end of November with my friend Scott. It was very interesting.” She needs to say his name like probing a sore tooth; was it really almost two months ago?
“Now I must confess I don’t know the New Zealand wine areas well. I’ve only ever been to Marlborough. But there’s so much good stuff in Australia, you know? And then the imports, too – I’m a fan of some of those very bold Chilean wines.”
“Do you work in the wine industry?”
“No! No, it’s just a hobby. I’m a photographer, actually, and a curator. I photograph – well, it’s mostly commercial photography, for firms’ brochures and things, but I keep a foothold in the art world too. What do you do?”
“As it happens, I trained in fine arts and graphic design, but now I’m in charge of layout for a magazine – Discover NZ, it’s a magazine for the New Zealand tourist industry.”
“I did a commission for a tourism magazine quite recently. Photographing a cookery school just outside Hobart. It went on for hours and I didn’t get anything to eat…nice place though. Scrubbed oak countertops, apple-white paint, a kitchen acres wide. All the veggies organic and locally sourced. They were really selling the dream.”
“Well, I guess you were selling it.”
“Oh yes, I did my humble best. It was a pretty nice dream, worth buying, I reckon.” Jamie finishes her wine. “My round. I’ll get us both some of that other chardonnay.”
“No thanks, I’m – I’m on antibiotics at the moment so I can’t drink.”
“That’s a pity. I was going to ask if you wanted to join me on the wine tour I’ve booked for tomorrow, but I guess you don’t. But I’m having the beginnings of an idea and I want to tell you about it when I’ve had a chance to think a little more. How about we team up on Wednesday? It’s a date. Wednesday.”
She’d cooled down in the air-conditioned bar, but by the time she reaches her hotel again she’s glad to get under the shower and wash off the sweat. She wishes she could wash Scott out of her head. Baby. After all, what did he mean by inviting her along if he expected nothing to happen. What did she mean by accepting. The truth they found in wine is apparently one neither of them is prepared to deal with. She gets out of the shower and stands naked in front of the mirror, cupping the newly swelling curve of her breasts in her hands.
By Wednesday Catherine is sick of her own company and looking forward to Jamie’s ebullient self-absorption. Sure enough, Jamie is eager to share all the incidents and discoveries of her wine tour, including a detailed list of recommendations that Catherine instantly forgets. She maintains a flow of talk – about wine, about the local area, about other places she’s visited – as they pick up the rental car she’s booked and drive to today’s destination, which is a place with a pair of hedge mazes, flower gardens and an arboretum. Catherine imagines Jamie’s energy seeping into her, even as she finds herself mildly disliking her.
The dislike steams off under the sun that beats down on the gardens. The hedges are tall but give surprisingly little shade. Jamie is determined to deduce the principles of the maze, counting turns and memorizing landmarks, but it’s Catherine who finds the centre on an impulsive choice of path. They’re both heartened by this minor victory. The second maze yields to them surprisingly easily, as if knowing they’re on a winning streak. Then they wander into a lavender garden, singing with bees, and find a set of giant chimes on which Catherine plays Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They’ve been given a sheet on which to fill in the names of various gnomes and fairies hidden around the gardens and in the trees; Jamie renames them things like “Freddy the One-Foot Flasher” and “Marlene Ditch-Twitch”. It’s exhaustingly hot.
Over lunch in the cafe Jamie explains her idea.
“I’ve a friend who runs a gallery in Sydney and she’s asked me to help her put together something showcasing women’s work in the arts and visual media. So, talking to you got me thinking. You know, about how so many of us are in the business of presenting what other people do. Propping them up, helping them get ahead, making them look pretty. Me photographing food, you laying out your magazine, Ashley with her gallery. Typical woman’s work, isn’t it?”
“What, beautifying things?”
“No, more the bustling around the sides. The framing. Never being in the centre. Like that poor bloody woman on the beach yesterday with her horrible kids. I expect she’s quite interesting really but you’d never know, would you?”
Catherine can’t immediately think how to answer this.
“Anyway, I started to think about how we could play around with putting the frames in the centre. I could take some shots of the gallery and display those. The gallery displaying the gallery, you see? And I have a couple of friends who are fashion photographers – how about they photograph each other, doing their work?”
“Models are kind of like frames too, showing off other people’s clothes. Could you involve the models in some way as well?”
“Don’t know, but you’re right. There’s that project Cybele Malinowski has of photographing models in their own homes, which I guess is more about them as people rather than human coat-hangers, but they’re still always hanging around in their undies. But I want to tell you how you come into this. I’d like to use some of your layouts and present them as collages, you know, as art in their own right. Or how about if I send you some of the other materials we come up with – would you like to do a huge layout for a whole wall of the gallery? So layout becomes something monumental, like a fresco.”
“That sounds really exciting. I’d absolutely love to do something like that. But surely you know other layout people? Why me?”
“Well, I don’t actually, as it happens, not women anyway. It needs to be people I know – it’s a shoestring effort, just self-publicizing and doing it for the love. And I went off and looked up your magazine the other night and I thought it was pretty good.”
Catherine feels simultaneously slightly insulted and determined to impress. “It would be fun to approach layout design as art. I could do something with your idea of reversing the frame and the content, perhaps putting the explanatory text in the boxes where the pictures might go and making the rest of the shape of the page out of pictures.” Will Jamie like this idea?
“That could work. You’d have to have some strong colours to work with. I’m imagining something with a big visual impact. You’ll need to come to the gallery and see the wall first. Ashley and I might be able to dig out some funding to help pay for travel; actually I think there might be some funding for cross-Tasman collaborations we could apply for, so that’s another great reason to get you on board. Anyway, when are you free between now and, say, April?”
“What’s the lead in time for the exhibition? Is it flexible?”
“Ashley has a specific gap she wants to fill in the gallery’s schedule so it’s pretty tight if we want to put together lots of new content and funding applications. She has something booked in until 19th August and then she’d like to get the new show installed and open as quickly as possible.”
“I should be able to get some time off work in August and come over. There aren’t normally many people wanting to book leave then.”
Catherine has calculated that 20th August is her due date.
After a busy day in the hot sun Catherine ought to be crushingly tired, but for the first time for weeks she sits up late, sketching out ideas for a mural. She loves the thought of doing something large, the fussy rhythms of a magazine transformed into grand gestures. She loves the thought of herself as an artist; perhaps it’s a silly fantasy, but she imagines someone walking into that Sydney gallery and asking who this Catherine Mitchell is and where he can buy more of her work. Eventually she falls asleep but her dreams are contrary. She’s holding the baby, trying to feed him, but she can’t get her breast to his mouth, it’s the wrong shape somehow, and the baby is crying; she aches with wanting to feed her baby. Now Jamie is there, working importantly on a laptop, and Catherine holds the baby up towards her: “Look, it’s my best thing, look how beautiful.” But she’s not interested. She doesn’t look up from her laptop.
The next day Jamie texts at 8.20am to say she’s already been in touch with Ashley, who thinks it’s an idea worth exploring and wants to talk about possible sponsors. Might Catherine’s magazine be interested in contributing something? Would they be eligible for funding from Creative New Zealand? Jamie wants to meet for lunch and have a brainstorming session to start writing a project description.
The lunch goes well, Catherine thinks; Jamie seems to be full of enthusiasm for her own idea and fully convinced that Catherine should have a part in it. She’s made a list of funding bodies and application deadlines and she’s already emailed the two fashion photographers that she wants to bring in and made a rough plan of how the different parts of the exhibition might fit in the gallery space. Catherine hears her own voice making practical suggestions and agreeing to specific dates. She feels excited, detached, and as though her heart is breaking.
Leaving the cafe they find themselves, by unspoken agreement, walking down to the beach. As they wait to cross the road they see again the mother from a few days before, holding her beach umbrella and an overstuffed cloth bag in one hand and the hand of the youngest boy in the other; the other two boys are lined up on the pavement, each with a bundle of towels. The small car-park is full and a couple of people have parked illegally on the road; the mother cranes forward to see past an SUV. The boys start forward with her motion, but she spots something and waves them back – only the middle boy has set out too impetuously and keeps going. The approaching car hits him a glancing blow and he’s flung sideways into the low bushes on the verge, scattering beach towels that unfurl their colours with a grotesque brilliance, falling around him like flags.
An awful clarity descends. Already Jamie has her phone out and is calling an ambulance. Another bystander runs after the car, trying to photograph its number-plate; the driver isn’t stopping. Catherine crosses to where the mother is kneeling, umbrella and bag cast aside. The hurt child is conscious – the bush seems to have cushioned him from head injury – but he’s wide-eyed in pain and shock, gazing at his mother who holds his hands and tells him she loves him, where does it hurt, he’s so brave, he’ll be fine. From the dim memories of a first aid course Catherine checks as well as she remembers how for signs of internal bleeding; the boy doesn’t seem to be bleeding at the mouth, though he is obviously severely bruised and grazed and has perhaps broken his pelvis. “We shouldn’t move him,” says Catherine. She wants to protect his head from the twiggy bush but she fears jolting a possible neck injury, so she turns her attention to the other two boys, the youngest crying in confusion, the eldest clutching his towels and looking lost. “Is Ryan going to die?” asks the elder child. “No, no he isn’t,” says Catherine.
Much later, Catherine joins the mother in the hospital. The other two boys are in their holiday flat with Jamie. Catherine marvels at the trust with which Louise – for that is her name – has handed her keys and her sons to two strangers, but what else could she have done? Catherine is glad that she and Jamie have been able to offer this support. She was surprised that Jamie volunteered to stay behind while Catherine brought in an overnight bag for Ryan and Louise, but Jamie declared frankly that, out of children and hospitals, she was more scared by hospitals. However, when Catherine left she was getting on with the boys quite well.
“How is he?”
“He’s just come out of surgery,” says Louise. “They said he would probably sleep most of the night, even after the general anaesthetic wears off. It went well, they said.”
“My mother is flying in from Adelaide, she should be here by about 2am to take over with Joe and Luke. Listen, thankyou so much, you and your friend have been – I can’t say how grateful I am, I don’t know what I would have done.”
“We’re just glad we could help, that we were there. Joe and Luke are fine. They want to know how Ryan is doing. Jamie’s entertaining them by photographing them, I hope that’s ok.”
“Of course, that’s fine.”
Conversation falters; Louise’s attention goes back to Ryan, who’s started to shift around a bit; she carefully straightens the drip going into his arm, rearranges the sheet he’s partially shuffled off. Suddenly Catherine wants to tell her everything: mother I have sinned, I’ve messed up, tell me what to do. I believe in a woman’s right to choose, I don’t want to choose, I am constantly, stupidly choosing. But then she feels ashamed; Louise is the one who needs someone to comfort her now.
“Do you want to talk? I mean, I’m here, I’ll listen, if you want to vent or anything.”
“Oh, venting! Well, sometimes I do wonder why me. Why all this shit happens to me. My husband left about a year ago, you know. Being a single mother of three kids wasn’t exactly the plan. And now this. But it’s no good complaining, is it?” Catherine must have made some sceptical sound because Louise seems to feel she has to defend this. “That’s not just a cliche, it really isn’t. Raging, now raging can be good sometimes. I did a fair amount of that, when Ronan buggered off. But in the end nothing stops, you simply have to get on with it. And they think Ryan’s going to make a full recovery and that’s all that matters really.”
Perhaps I don’t have to choose, thinks Catherine as she walks to the car (it is, at last, appreciably cooler), or perhaps not in that way. Perhaps all I have to do is get on with it, one step at a time. I’ll start with Jamie. She realises that, in four days, Jamie has become a real friend; she certainly deserves the truth. And then, tomorrow, she’ll email Scott. And after that, she’ll know what to do.