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By CATHERINE JINKS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2005 Catherine Jinks
All right reserved.
How did I ever get into this mess?
Look at me. Just look at me. I'm a walking disaster area. Check out the hands, for a start-you get hands like this when you have babies. They're in water all day long, what with the nappies and the spills and the bottles that have to be disinfected, so they crack up like dried-out creek beds. Happens practically overnight. With the result that I'm a thirty-eight-year-old law graduate with the hands of a fifty-year-old hop-picker. A fifty-year-old blind hop-picker. Count the Band-Aids. This one's so old, I can't remember why I put it on. I know why I haven't changed it-no time-but I can't remember why it's there. Number two is there because I'm ecologically responsible. I was washing the lid off a tin of stewed pears, in preparation for recycling, and gave myself the kind of gash you'd only reasonably expect to pick up after scaling a barbed-wire fence. (No more civic duty for yours truly. They can wash their own bloody tins.) Number three was Emily's fault: she dropped a glass. I picked up the pieces, put them in the kitchen tidy, forgot about them, and when I was trying to compress the rubbish by giving it a shove, so that I could insert just one more eggshell into it-yeow! Of course, it's my fault thatour garbage bins are always overflowing. I never seem to have time to empty them.
Number four is a particularly bad crack; it got infected. Number five is a fingernail repair. Half my fingernail was ripped off because I always let them grow too long (no time to cut them), and they get nicks in them, and then the nicks get snagged on woollen jumpers, and the nails get torn way down into the fleshy bits, and there's nothing much you can do about that except wrap a Band-Aid around the damage and wait for the nail to sort itself out. Either it grows or it sheds. Whatever it does, however, you know that the Band-Aid is going to be there for a good, long time. Weeks, usually. I've forgotten what my hands look like without Band-Aids on them. Just as I've forgotten what my clothes look like without stains on them.
This top, for instance. This top dates from my breastfeeding period. You can tell because it buttons down the front, and because it's covered in faint, yellowish marks that are either baby puke or breast milk. (They're the same thing, really.) If I'd tackled those stains early enough, I might have got rid of them with a paste made of powdered laundry detergent, but of course I wasn't up to it, in those days. I was so sleep-deprived that soaking clothes in a bucket of NapiSan was about as far as I could extend myself. Anyway, what would have been the point? Because this stain here is much more recent (chocolate biscuit fingerprints) and this one is too. Don't ask me what it is. A mystery stain. What's watery and greenish and ends up on your shoulder? I don't think I want to know.
Stains on the top. Stains on the shoes. Stains on the skirt, which has an elasticised waistband. Yes-an elasticised waistband. That's how low I've sunk. Or rather, that's how big I've got. I used to be size ten, before I had Emily. I used to wear natural fibers, and iron all my clothes, and shun things like track-pants and elasticised waistbands. I also used to wash my hair more than once a week. How the mighty have fallen!
You may wonder what stops me from washing my hair. Well, nothing really-except the fact that every time I step into the shower, despite all my attempts to bribe and distract, the kids start screaming in the kitchen. And I can't shower when they're asleep, because of the noise made by the plumbing. It's extraordinary, like the engine room of the Titanic; I don't know what it is about the pipes in this place. It's as if they're haunted. I've heard them grumbling and wheezing away at two o'clock in the morning. They're yet another aspect of this house that needs a complete overhaul.
But don't get me started on the house. If you want to talk about mess, here it is-mess central. Just cast your eyes over my domicile, will you? Note the layer of dust from the renovations, and the matching pile of builder's rubble outside the window. Note the sticky patches on the kitchen floor, the fingermarks at knee level, the biscuit crumbs, the cockroach traps, the soggy fragment of chewed Crispbread on top of the video player, the doll's house furniture and plush animals and frayed silk scarves and capless marking pens and bits of ribbon and Tonka trucks and broken Fisher-Price activity centers scattered all over every available surface. Note the big, nasty stain on the couch (blackcurrant juice), and the scribble on the wall. That was Jonah. I used to nag Emily about leaving the caps off her colored markers, but I'm wiser now. After all, Jonah can't do much harm with a dried-out marker, can he?
Last, but not least, take a squint at the refrigerator. I ought to get a biological hazard sign. The inside certainly wouldn't pass a health inspection; you can't pull the crisper drawer out because some kind of sticky brown paste has welded it to the white plastic surface beneath it. As for the outside, it's almost as bad as the inside, though in a different way. All those unsightly, reddish bills stuck up there, glowering at me. The letter from my cousin in England that's six months old and that I still haven't answered. The laughable builder's quotes. The reminder about the day care fete which utterly slipped my mind. The takeaway menus that are never used, these days, because we don't have the money to splurge on Thai food. The back-care health leaflet. (Don't ask.) The Tresillian Parents' Help Line number. The invitation to my twenty-year high school reunion.
I remember the ten-year reunion. At least, I remember me at the ten-year reunion. I had twenty thousand dollars in the bank, a great figure, a trendy haircut, an impressive and secure job, fantastic clothes and a phenomenally sexy boyfriend.
Now I'm overweight, in debt, dowdy and unshaven. My hair looks awful. I've got minced hands, a part-time job that I can't enjoy because I feel too guilty about it, and a husband who seems to be cheating on me.
So I repeat: how did I ever get into this mess?
It was Miriam who broke the news, needless to say. Miriam Coutts. She's Senior Manager of the Investigations unit at the Pacific Commercial Bank, and she's always had a nose for suspicious behavior. That's why she does what she does. She started off as a branch teller, but was so successful at stopping frauds over the counter that the bank moved her to its Investigations unit, and had her chasing down credit card scams at the age of twenty-three. That was when I first met her. Since then she's taken over the unit, but she hasn't really changed much. She was always old at heart. Even when we were sharing a shabby terrace house in Paddington, and living on practically nothing, she had a managerial look about her. Very neat. Very organized. A routine for everything, and a file for everything else. That makes her sound deadly, I know, but she isn't. She has a very dry, very sharp sense of humor, and some interesting eccentricities: an addiction to Space Food Sticks, a taste for watching stock-car races, a collection of antique medicine bottles. She's also one of those people who don't age very much, for some reason-perhaps because she has olive skin and a "thin" gene. Even her hair is the same as it always was, shiny and dark and cut in a pageboy style. Only the labels on her clothes are different.
She turned up this evening in a Carla Zampatti suit. She also wore shoes that matched her handbag, which was a kind of sage green. I remember when I used to wear sage-green shoes with my sage-green handbag. Or taupe shoes with my taupe handbag. Back in the Good Old Days, when Matthew admired me for my stylish wardrobe as well as my pert little bottom. (I seem to have lost both.) The last time I used my suede brush was to scrub dog shit off the soles of Emily's white sandals. I bet Miriam still employs her own suede brush to brush suede, and keeps it in a drawer along with the conditioning oil she still uses on her handbags.
Just listen to me, will you? I sound like such a whiny bitch. What does it matter that my shoes no longer match my handbags? I mean, how trivial is that for a goal in life? I have a beautiful family. I have a well-paid job that's an absolute breeze. I shouldn't be jealous of Miriam; she might be wearing "warm hand wash only" garments these days, but her job's beginning to get her down, I can tell. She never used to complain about brainless senior management, or inadequate security measures. She never used to get irritable at the mere mention of her boss. I'm beginning to wonder if she's hit a glass ceiling-or if she's going to bail out, and try something different. I raised the subject, recently, and she flashed me a humorless smile. It wasn't so much the job, she said, it was the bankers. And where else would someone with her credentials find a job, except among bankers? It was an odd thing for her to say, I thought. It didn't sound like her, because she's never had a problem with bankers in the past. It made me realize how far we've drifted apart lately.
It's sad, when you consider how well we used to get on. We were on the same wavelength, once. She was from the south coast and I was from the North Shore-she had a mother and not much else, whereas I was well endowed with family, extended family, tertiary qualifications and a network of undemanding friends-but we shared a similar outlook nonetheless. For one thing, we were united against the other girl in our house, who was an airhead named Briony Crago. Miriam and I both saw eye to eye on things like wiping down the stove, paying the rent, and not distributing spare keys as freely and generously as promotional literature. Briony, on the other hand, was a great one for hauling strangers home from the pub, or leaving containers of taramasalata out for the cockroaches. It was hard not to regard her vision of the world as slightly skewed, because she would fuss over potpourri sachets for her underwear drawer while there was a sewage leak out near the clothesline. Miriam and I would laugh and grouse about this in equal measure. We would alert each other about sales at Grace Bros, and admire each other's taste in doona covers, foreign films and gourmet ice-cream. We were a team, in many ways. Comfortably equal. We went out together sometimes, and watched videos together sometimes. I suppose, at that point, she was my best friend. (I don't seem to have one, these days.) Certainly I knew her long before I knew Matthew. She was present on the occasion of my first meeting with Matt. She was also present at my hen's night, my wedding, and my only housewarming party.
Trust her to be on hand for the latest milestone event in my life.
She came this evening, at half past five. She always comes over here, because of the formidable logistics involved in my trying to get out of this place with two kids in tow. Having a good old heart-to-heart in a coffee shop, with Jonah squirming to get under the table and Emily spilling milkshake into your lap, is not really an option. Neither is her townhouse, which is full of so many steep little flights of stairs and challenging balconies that you might just as well drop Jonah on his head and be done with it. At least here we've got Sesame Street videos and teddy bear biscuits. At least here I can plunk the kids on a rug in front of the TV, with individual portions of chocolate mousse and the bribe that Miriam has brought with her. She's such a wise, well-organized woman that she always brings a few bribes. Usually it's stuff from a two-dollar shop, like a plastic dinosaur and a set of fake fingernails, or a toy car and a miniature gardening set-something like that. The kids love Miriam. They love it when Miriam visits, though she makes very little attempt to communicate with them. Not that I blame her, mind. She usually sees them when they're covered in mashed potato, and getting cranky after a long day. No one's at their best in such circumstances.
"Look at this," I said, as I gloomily surveyed my offspring stuffing themselves with sugar in front of the tube. "Do you know there's a mother from Jonah's playgroup who has three kids and no television? No television. I don't see how it's possible."
"Oh, stop it," said Miriam.
"Not only that, but she's a wholefood mother. Bulk lentils from the co-op. It's so depressing."
"I bet she smells funny," was Miriam's reply.
"Then the kids are monsters."
"Not at all. Really caring and sharing. Really nice."
"They don't wear shoes, then."
"Yes, they do. Sandals, anyway. Mind you, her husband's a creep."
"I mean, you wonder if the wholefood thing is entirely voluntary. On her part, that is. He's got all these theories about the way she should be washing the dishes-that sort of thing." I had to smile as I remembered. "We only went over there once," I went on, "and he sat talking about passive solar designs and composting toilets while she rushed around feeding everyone. God, he was awful. Hairy. Ginger hair."
I should add that I hadn't gone to Mandy's house with Matt, but with a bunch of playgroup mothers. Because it was the middle of the day, we had all been very surprised to find Ginger at home-a bit freaked out, in fact. Especially since Ginger had hijacked the conversation, asking each of us with a patronizing, toothy smile about our domestic arrangements, and preventing us from settling down to a good moan about our kids and our husbands (one of the unexpected benefits of playgroup). We had been forced to do things like praise the bowel-cleansing powers of pumpkins, and condemn the appalling effects of television, while at the same time admitting -weakly-that we didn't have the strength to cut up whole Queensland blues or ban television from our homes. God, it was annoying. Especially since Mandy's kitchen was plastered with examples of her kids' astonishing artistic prowess, and heaped with produce from her vegetable garden.
Yes that's right. On top of everything else, she grows her own vegetables. I mentioned this to Miriam, who seemed unimpressed.
"Mmm," she mumbled. I glanced at her, then, and realized that this wasn't just going to be a catch-up session. She had something specific to say-something about men. Whenever Miriam needs advice, whenever she loses control a little, it's invariably because of a man. In that respect, I was always slightly ahead of her. Sure, I've made some mistakes, but they were never as bad as Miriam's. I never went out with anyone who stole checks from the back of my checkbook, or whose entire collection of literature had been lifted from public libraries, or who was busy stalking a past girlfriend while he was courting me. Miriam seems to be a magnet for people like that, whose failings aren't always immediately apparent. Oh, she's not stupid; she susses them out pretty fast. But she concedes that there must be some flaw in her genetic makeup which drives her to fall for them in the first place-a kind of "bad boy" gene. She's a bit like me, I suppose. We're both good girls who find bad boys attractive, though my bad boys were never as bad as hers, thank God, perhaps because I could afford to pick and choose a bit. Miriam couldn't, as a rule. There were never many men interested in Miriam, I don't know why. Because she wasn't one to flaunt her belly button, or giggle a lot? Because she could often come across as rather formidable? The unhappy fact is, bad boys are usually lazy, despite their glamour-far too lazy to tackle a challenge like Miriam.
Mind you, things have changed recently. She's been with Giles for eighteen months now, and so far it's been all seaside resorts and bagels for breakfast. That's one reason why I haven't seen much of her over the last year. It's the old story of the New Man not having much time for the Old Friend (especially the Old Friend who can't do brunch anywhere except at McDonald's). Besides, I don't like Giles. I've tried, God knows, because Miriam obviously thinks he's wonderful, she can't stop talking about how brilliant and stylish he is, and she's right-he is. He's one of those top-notch money market guys, smart as a whip, slicked-back hair, marble Jacuzzi, that sort of thing. With a goatee, just to show everyone that he's not your typical corporate animal. Obviously, Miriam feels that she's met her match at last. But I can't help wondering.
Excerpted from Spinning Around by CATHERINE JINKS Copyright © 2005 by Catherine Jinks. Excerpted by permission.
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