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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.10(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
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The Road Back
By Di Morrissey
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Lady Byron Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved.
Chris Baxter stood in line, holding his boarding pass and listening to the Australian accents of the other passengers as they made their way towards the Qantas flight that would take them from Los Angeles to Sydney. As he moved through the business class boarding entrance on this last leg of his journey home, he felt a sense of loss and sadness at leaving behind a country he was only just beginning to understand.
He'd arrived in Washington DC three years ago from his previous assignment in London. He'd enjoyed his time in the British capital, especially living near his sister, Kate. Arriving in the States, he had expected to find familiarity and egalitarianism, but instead he'd discovered a land of more complexity and contradiction than he could ever have imagined. From the silly and superficial to the talented and brilliant, from the liberal and tolerant to conservative fundamentalist, from the generous and open-hearted to the tight-lipped and mean-spirited, from the poor, marginalised and uneducated to the bigots, bureaucrats and brains, America was the ultimate jigsaw puzzle, a land seemingly made up of dozens of different countries. He'd loved every moment of his assignment as a foreign correspondent and was disappointed that the Australian newspaper he worked for had decided not to extend his term.
He smiled at the flight attendant standing at the door of the plane and showed him his boarding pass.
'Good evening, Mr Baxter. Upstairs on your right. I like the jacket,' the flight attendant said, indicating Chris's well-worn Schott leather jacket.
'A souvenir,' Chris replied.
'And the Harley? Is it in the hold?'
'Afraid not,' replied Chris with a rueful smile.
'Well, you have got the look if not the accent,' said the flight attendant before turning to greet the next passenger.
Chris settled his lanky frame into his seat, hoping no one would sit beside him. It had been a long while since he'd flown business class. Trinity Press didn't stretch to such extravagances these days, but he'd used his frequent flyer points to upgrade for the long-haul flight.
'A drink, Mr Baxter?' asked an attractive flight attendant, pausing in the aisle beside him.
'I'll take the champagne, thanks.'
'Have you enjoyed your time in the US?'
'Yes, I've been working there as a journalist for three years. I'm heading back home now for a bit of a break. Looking forward to spending time with my daughter. She's growing up so quickly.' The flight attendant nodded and smiled understandingly. She poured a glass of champagne and placed it neatly on a napkin in front of him.
'And then you'll be back?'
'Actually, I've finished up in America.'
'That's a pity. Are you going to stay in Australia?'
He shook his head. 'I'm not sure. I might end up somewhere in Asia.'
'Well, enjoy your drink. Champagne always feels like a celebration, doesn't it? I'll be back with the dinner menu shortly.'
It didn't feel like a celebration. Chris sighed and ran his hand through his thick hair. While he was looking forward to seeing his daughter and his mother, he still thought about all that he was leaving behind. As Washington DC was the political hub of the world he had relished his political assignments. But he'd also had a knack for finding off-beat stories and, whenever he'd had the chance, which was not as frequently as he would have liked, he'd headed out on the road in his five-year-old Lexus to track them down. Over time he had managed to cover conventions, rallies, quirky beauty pageants, agriculture events, rodeos, disasters, and life in city slums as well as rural and suburban small-town USA, which, for him, made up the fabric of modern America. He'd enjoyed the experiences, as they had given him a much deeper insight into the country and these stories had proved to be popular with Australian readers.
But even as he regretted leaving the States, Chris knew that no matter what sources he'd found and contacts he'd made there, he remained an outsider, for the foreign press corps never had the advantages of local media on home turf. And while he had made American friendships and socialised with his colleagues as well as members of the international press corps, his nomadic life had meant he hadn't fostered deep relationships. He guessed that some of the women in his circle had been attracted to him but his work had precluded his making any lasting connections. And after a painful and expensive divorce some years ago, he had no intention of leaping into another commitment any time soon.
Chris finished his champagne and kicked off his shoes, glad the seat beside him remained empty. In the oasis of the upstairs cabin he pulled out his book, but when a flight attendant came by with magazines and newspapers he put it aside and asked for a copy of The Economist and The Wall Street Journal.
He quickly became absorbed in a lengthy article on the continuing Middle East negotiations as the plane began to taxi along the runway, then he leaned back and closed his eyes as the lights of Los Angeles airport shrank below him.
As the plane began to level out, Chris's thoughts turned to his fourteen-year-old daughter, Megan, and he realised how much he was looking forward to spending time with her. He hadn't seen her since his last trip home nearly twelve months ago. He followed Megan on her Facebook page – where he learned more about her than in the emails they exchanged – and they Skyped each other as often as they could. As far as he could tell, Megan seemed to be going through a phase in which she swung between behaving like a ten-year-old one minute and a twenty-year-old the next. As much as he loved his daughter, he had some sympathy for his ex-wife, Jill. Living with a teenager would not be a stroll in the park. Megan was coming to stay with him a few days after he got back. He made up his mind that he would take Megan somewhere special, just the two of them. Smiling to himself, he returned to his magazine and the eternal problems of the Middle East.
He had nearly finished reading the magazines when the flight attendant put a linen placemat on his tray table and offered to top up his champagne.
'I think I'd like to switch to a good red. What Australian wines do you have?' he asked.
She handed him the dinner menu. 'We have Coonawarra and Hunter Valley reds. The main course is lobster or duck.'
'Hard choices,' he said, smiling. 'Thank you. I'll go for the Hunter Shiraz, and the duck sounds good.'
After the delicious meal, he leaned back and closed his eyes, enjoying the luxury of stretching out his long legs along the extended seat. Enjoy the next few hours in limboland, he told himself.
Although he had some leave up his sleeve, Chris was curious as to what plans Trinity Press had for him. He knew that when he returned to work, he'd probably hit the ground running. The Bangkok office was up for grabs, and he was fairly sure that it would be offered to him. He thought he'd like that, but he also knew that he wasn't fussy; as long as the destination was abroad, he'd go anywhere.
He slept well on the flight, in as near to a horizontal position as he could achieve with his long limbs and, refreshed and enjoying a coffee after breakfast, he watched the sunrise as the plane made its approach into Sydney. The sight of the morning light gleaming on the sails of the Opera House, and the arms of the two headlands embracing the magnificent harbour with its bridge connecting the two sides of the city, reminded him again what a seductive city Sydney was.
Once he had cleared customs and immigration, he caught a taxi to his tiny apartment, which was in a threestorey building on a narrow street in Neutral Bay, within walking distance of the Neutral Bay Wharf. The tenant, whose rent had helped pay the mortgage on the one-bedroom unit, had vacated it some days before, and the place looked clean, if somewhat impersonal.
A couple of hours later, after he'd unpacked his suitcases, he walked up to Military Road. He was pleased to see that some of his favourite shops were still in business and he went into the supermarket for some basic provisions. Shopping finished, he sat at an outdoor table of a small coffee shop which served excellent espresso. With the sun warming his back and a fresh light breeze ruffling his hair, he admitted to himself that he was glad to be home.
* * *
The following Saturday, Chris grinned broadly as Megan walked towards him from the Neutral Bay bus stop. He saw how she'd grown taller and realised that her body was filling out. She was carrying a large backpack and wearing baggy floral shorts and a midriff top, earphones around her neck, black lace canvas sneakers minus the laces and, as she got closer, he could see daisies glued to her fingernails. Her brown hair with its natural coppery highlights was twisted into a side French braid. She was wearing pale lip gloss and eye shadow. Megan had a slightly quirky look which was fresh and appealing. He held out his arms and she gave him a big hug. Chris held her tight and affectionately kissed the top of her head.
'Hi, Dad,' said Megan, her bright eyes shining.
'How's my girl?'
'Good. Are we going to have something to eat? I'm starving.'
'If you like,' he said, taking her bag and guiding her down the street towards a café. 'Sorry that you had to get the bus to Neutral Bay. It's a bit of a long haul from Newport, but I haven't got a car yet. Once I get settled, maybe you could help me buy one.'
'That would be cool, Dad,' said Megan as they stopped in front of the café.
'This coffee shop is pretty good for food. Will it do?' Megan nodded and they went inside and ordered a coffee for Chris and some salmon sushi and a fruit smoothie for Megan. Taking a seat, Chris smiled again at his daughter. She had changed but she was still his little girl. Their orders arrived promptly and Megan tucked in with gusto.
'Have a piece of sushi, Dad, it's really good,' said Megan as her father sipped his coffee.
'Okay, thanks. I like your outfit. I'm a bit out of date with your taste in clothes these days. Does your mother buy things for you, or do you pick them out yourself?'
She wrinkled her nose. 'No, Mum hardly ever buys clothes for me. We have veeery different ideas. I shop with my girlfriends when I've saved enough pocket money. If Mum comes with me it usually ends up in an argument. I wouldn't be seen dead in some of the things she thinks are appropriate,' she said with an elaborate sigh.
Having put a toe in the water, Chris ventured in deeper. 'So how are you and your mum getting on? Have things calmed down since the wedding?'
Megan shrugged her shoulders and said wearily, 'No. Oscar and Ned drive me crazy. Mum is trying to be so nice to them, but I can tell they're driving her nuts, too. The boys are really messy, so Mum makes me keep my things tidy. She uses me as an example and makes a big show about how perfect my room is, but I hate them even looking in my space. The boys don't like me, and I feel the same about them. And I have to help clear up the kitchen and do other jobs to show them what they're supposed to do, but really they think cleaning is a girl thing. I don't think it's very fair.'
'Well, the twins are only, what? Eight? Ten? Doesn't their father insist they help? Put the rubbish out or something?' said Chris, frowning.
'No way!' said Megan, taking another bite of sushi. 'And would you believe Trevor has the cheek to ask me to fetch things for him? I'm not his servant. Dad, it's awful. I hate it.'
'Whoa, calm down,' said Chris, placing his hand on her arm. 'Look, this is a big adjustment for all of you. I know it's not easy, sweetie, but if your mother is happy and this is what she's chosen for her life, you have to try to be happy for her. Support her.'
Megan stared at him as if he had just spoken in Swahili. 'Dad. C'mon. Think about it. Trevor Franks is a sitcom joke of a stepfather with two spoiled, stupid brat sons. It's a teenager's worst nightmare. My own horror show. This is Mum's new life. Not mine. I didn't get any say in it.'
'Sweetie, your mother discussed marrying Trevor with you,' said Chris gently. 'She talked to me about it. She wants you all to be part of a proper family, especially as I'm away so much. And the boys are included in that. Maybe they're as unhappy about this adjustment as you are.'
'They're not unhappy. They have each other and they can make my life hell. Why would they be unhappy?' Megan gave him a thunderous look.
Chris was at a loss as to how to deal with this outburst but managed to say, 'Listen, Megan, sweetheart, give it a chance. Not everything can be bad. Now that I'm back, at least for a while, you can come and spend weekends with me. I know my place is very small and you'll have to sleep on the sofa, or I will. But it's only for a night or two at a time. And you still like school and you seem to have a busy social life, don't you?'
'I'd die without my girlfriends.'
Chris suppressed a smile. 'Well, it's great you have such good mates.'
'You have to meet Ruby. Can she come over to your place sometime, please?' said Megan, a more cheerful note entering her voice.
'Is she your bestie?'
Megan laughed. 'Are you trying to keep up with the lingo, Dad? Not easy, 'cause it changes every week. Some new word comes out.'
'It's all a foreign language to me, honey. I'm just going inside to get a glass of water. Can I get you one, too?'
When Chris returned with two glasses of water and put them on the table, Megan looked up from her phone.
'Texting a friend?' her father asked.
'Yes, Ruby.' She held up the phone. 'Chilling with my dad. Don't think he knows he's still got the looks. Some grey hairs starting. LOL. He wears bad American shirts. Wants to meet you.'
'Cheeky possum. I like my Yank shirt.' Chris laughed, but he was pleased that Megan wanted to share her friends with him.
When they were finished they went back to Chris's flat for the afternoon. Chris checked his email on his laptop on the dining room table. He'd got in touch with his old friends and colleagues telling them he was back in Australia waiting for his next assignment and fishing around for news and gossip about the local media scene. Megan lolled on the sofa listening to the Thundamentals on her iPod while updating her four closest girlfriends with the details of what had happened so far that day on her smart phone.
A couple of hours later, Chris tapped her on the shoulder. 'Can you hear me? Where do you want to go for dinner? What sort of food would you like?'
Megan pulled the earphones from her ears. 'Dinner? I'm easy. What do you like?'
'I'd like some good Asian. How about we go to Chinatown?'
'That sounds really cool. I've never been there. Way too far from Newport. I'll go and change.'
Chris was pleasantly surprised when Megan emerged from the bedroom dressed in a short cotton floral dress. She'd paid a lot of attention to her hairdo and accessories. However, Chris was a bit startled that she had completed the outfit with a pair of multi-coloured basketball shoes.
'You look lovely, except perhaps for the shoes. What happened to sandals?'
'Dad, these are Converse! They call them Chuckies after the basketball player. Anyway, sandals are so, so ... sixties.'
'Got it,' said Chris humbly. 'You look terrific.'
They trawled through Chinatown, deciding which restaurant looked good. The narrow streets were crowded, full of people enjoying themselves.
'I love the palace places with all the red and gold,' Megan commented.
'Okay. You choose.'
Chris followed his daughter up the stairs of one of the large restaurants and into an immense room already filled with families chattering in Cantonese. As they were shown to a table, they dodged teams of waiters carrying huge trays of dishes with appetising aromas. Taking their seats, Megan's eyes popped as she leafed through the lengthy menu.
'Dad, this menu is huge. There are pages and pages.'
'What would you like to do, Megan? Have a dish for yourself, or share dishes with me?'
'I'd like to share.'
She took her time choosing the dishes she wanted and when they ordered the food she asked for a Sprite, eschewing the jasmine tea.
Chris leaned his chin on his hand and studied her. 'So, Megan. What's next?'
'You mean at school? What do I want to do with my life? Boyfriends? Or Mum and Trevor?'
Excerpted from The Road Back by Di Morrissey. Copyright © 2014 Lady Byron Pty Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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