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The Sweet Life
By Rebecca Lim
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2008 Rebecca Lim
All rights reserved.
For as long as Janey could remember, it had just been her and her mum.
They'd been a unit. A force to be reckoned with, the Gordon Girls. Best friends. And now her mum was gone and only Janey was left.
Everything was a nightmare. She felt as though the sound had been turned down on her world, with all the colour and joy drained out of it. Like she was moving alone through a fog, with everyone else going at normal speed around her. Janey just couldn't fathom a world without her mum in it.
Mourners filed past Janey in the chapel foyer, murmuring their sympathies. The church had been packed. People had laughed and cried at the songs and stories Janey's mum had chosen for her own service. She had so many friends.
'Friends are so important,' she would always tell Janey fiercely. 'You can't ever pick your family, sweetheart. But you can pick your friends. And the best ones will see you through anything.'
Janey had taken that advice to heart. Her best friends, Em, Gabs and Ness, were as different as night and day, but they were like her sisters. Emily Clough was petite, quiet, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and passionate about everything to do with film and theatre. One day, she wanted to be a famous director. Gabriela Epstein was a curvy, red-haired siren with an awesome singing voice and the ability to strike up a funny conversation with just about anyone. A life skill Janey wished she had. And Vanessa McAdams? She was the gorgeous, fashion-mad clothes horse of the group who worked part-time after school just to afford the latest everything. If a trend changed anywhere, she was onto it.
Which left Janey. The tall, slightly plain, very practical one with unruly red-gold shoulder-length hair and an uncontrollable case of freckles. She didn't think she was good at anything in particular, but the others always seemed to turn to her for advice, as well as the best minestrone soup in the universe.
Her three best friends stood by discreetly now, as Janey shook the hands of people she'd never met before and would probably never see again.
When it was all over and the chapel was empty, Emily and Ness each put an arm around Janey's shoulders while Gabs led the way from the silent building.
'I don't know what I should be feeling,' Janey said tearfully. 'I always thought she'd beat it, you know? She could do anything, my mum. She was a superhero.'
It was kind of true. Janey's mum, Lydia, had fallen pregnant at sixteen – the same age Janey was now – and instead of giving in to intense pressure to get rid of the baby, she'd cut off all ties with her ultra-conservative parents, moved states, lied about her age to get work, and kept her baby. Her boyfriend had been seventeen and never wanted to be in the picture. All her life, Janey's mum had worked hard to make sure that Janey never felt like she was missing anything. And she hadn't.
'I would never have had the guts to do what your mum did,' agreed Emily huskily. 'Going it alone like that. She was the strongest person I've ever met. I thought she'd beat it too.'
Ness nodded, tears welling in her eyes. They all loved Lydia Gordon, with her funky dress sense, her fantastic cooking, and her enormous laugh. It didn't feel quite real that she developed leukaemia so quickly and was gone in a matter of a few short months. She was so young.
'The hardest part's coming up,' replied Janey with a catch in her voice. 'You sure you guys want to come? I might lose it totally.' So far, she'd held herself together pretty well but she was thankful her mum had asked to be laid to rest privately, just the same.
Her friends nodded. 'We 're with you all the way, Janes,' Gabs said. 'It can't be any worse than what you've been through already. Come on. She wouldn't have wanted you to be sad. There's no more pain where she is.'
To match Janey's mood, rain began to stream down out of the sky as she and her best friends and their parents climbed into the waiting hearses.
* * *
Janey sat cross-legged on her mother's bedroom floor in the fading light of late afternoon.
She'd spent the whole Saturday going through Lydia's papers, alternately laughing and crying at the crazy things her mum had thought important to keep. The house seemed so cold and unfamiliar without the smell of Lydia's favourite sandalwood incense burning, or the sound of classical music playing low somewhere in the house.
She stared at the letter she held in her hand in disbelief. It was over three years old, headed with the name of some crusty law firm in Sydney, together with the ominous words Private and Confidential.
Janey read the letter through several times. The words made absolutely no sense to her numb brain.
Dear Ms Gordon,
We are writing to determine whether you are the same Lydia Cromwell Gordon, birth date 9 January 1975, formerly of 'Clewes House', 18 Berkeley Crescent, Double Bay, New South Wales 2028. A family member wishes to make contact in regard to a matter that may benefit you materially. Please contact the writer on the direct line below to discuss the necessary proof of identification and to arrange contact.
That was pretty much all the letter said. But it was the words family member that made Janey's mind reel, because Lydia had told her several years before that Janey's grandparents had died in a car accident. Lydia had seen an article about it in the newspaper the day after it had happened, and although her eyes had been sad, her voice was hard.
'They were most likely on their way back from the country house in the Hunter Valley,' she'd said in a detached monotone, chopping vegetables furiously. 'Seems they collided with a fruit truck. Dad would've hated that. He hated mess. That's that then. We 're the only Gordons left now.'
Janey had seen her mum furtively wipe away a few tears, blaming them on the onions, before she changed the subject altogether.
And now there was this letter. Lydia must never have replied, because there was no further correspondence from the law firm anywhere in her papers.
Janey got up slowly – eyes red and head thumping from a headache that had been building all afternoon – and went down the hall to the poky study where the computer lived. She fired up the internet and typed in the name of the law firm.
Her skin prickled when the search results showed that the firm still existed. And not only that, it was still at the same address. She looked up the author of the letter on the firm's website and found that he was still there too, contactable on the same number.
Janey didn't know much about her mum's life before she'd been, well, her mum. All she knew was that Lydia Gordon had been the pampered only child of wealthy, rather elderly parents who had turned on her when she wanted to keep her baby. The address mentioned in the letter meant nothing to Janey, although the birth date listed there was as familiar to her as her own. And Lydia's middle name was 'Cromwell', after some long-dead relative.
With a weird fluttery feeling in the pit of her stomach, Janey rubbed her eyes with the back of one hand, and created a new document. She began typing 'Dear Sir ...'
* * *
Janey didn't hear back for weeks. And in those weeks her life changed radically.
Their narrow old weatherboard house was up for sale; it didn't really feel like home anymore, without her mum there. Everything that hadn't been given away in accordance with Lydia's wishes had been packed up and put into temporary storage. Janey had moved in with Gabs's family, the Epsteins, while she waited for the sale to go through. Mr Epstein was helping finalise the gazillion things that have to happen after a person dies that no sixteen-year-old is supposed to know about.
Before Lydia Gordon's illness had really taken hold, she had asked Gabs's dad to be Janey's legal guardian until she turned eighteen. But Janey wouldn't be living with the Epsteins permanently. The sale of the house would mean a new apartment for Janey one day, and maybe enough money to live on until she finished school and decided what she wanted to do with her life.
Still, for Janey, it was a heartbreaking time. Though she was looking forward to having her own place some day, she knew she would give it all up in a heartbeat to have her mum back again.
She forgot all about the letter until a buff-coloured envelope arrived in the mail weeks later, headed with the name of the Sydney law firm in a very important-looking font.
It was Friday afternoon. Ness and Em were staying over at the Epsteins that weekend as well, and all four girls were looking forward to a long, lazy Saturday of shopping, eating and catching up on the hottest music and movies. They were poring over the latest copy of their favourite magazine together and nominating the must-haves of the new season, when Gabs's mum passed through the kitchen and slid an envelope across the island bench towards Janey.
Everyone caught sight of the envelope and began talking at once.
'Is that what I think it is?' Emily demanded. Janey had told her friends about the mysterious letter, and how she'd just sent back a reply over three years later.
'You could be the heiress to a fabulous fortune!' squealed Ness. 'And up to the eyeballs in Jimmy Choo shoes by this time next week! We could give your wardrobe a complete overhaul!'
Janey laughed as she shook her head. 'The "family member" probably got all the loot! Though goodness knows who that is. Even if I do give the "necessary proof of identification", someone's probably just feeling guilty about the way Mum was hounded out of home. If I'm lucky, I'll get a commemorative ashtray or something, with the family crest on it.'
'Just open it before I die of curiosity!' Gabs pleaded, handing Janey a letter opener.
Janey's hands were shaking a little as she opened the envelope and unfolded the single sheet of paper inside. She scanned it quickly, unable to keep the disappointment out of her voice. 'More hurdles.'
She blinked, a telltale sheen in her eyes. 'The lawyer says I need to provide a photo of my mum around the time I was born, and a recent photo of me. The "family member" is probably a suspicious old crone, three times removed, who wants to make sure I have the family nose.'
Her friends crowded around to read the brief, businesslike letter, which gave absolutely nothing away.
'Look on the bright side,' said Gabs. 'We just got our school photos done and you look almost decent, for a change!'
Janey took a swipe at her friend's head with a towel as the four girls headed to the outside spa.
A few days later, Janey posted the requested photos and put the whole thing out of her mind.
* * *
It was the last week of term and Janey and Gabs were running late for school again, having fought the usual battle with their hair straighteners.
'There's a letter for you,' said Gabs as she flicked through the morning mail over her breakfast cereal. 'Whoo-hoo! It's got an Italian postmark.'
Janey frowned as she looked at the envelope. 'Must have the wrong Jane Gordon. This letter's from a Celia Albright at the Australian Embassy in Rome. I've never even left the country.'
She didn't need to say more. Unlike her besties, Janey had never had enough money to spend on the latest cute fashion buys, let alone a holiday overseas.
She ripped open the envelope and almost choked as something slipped out of the folds of the letter and splashed into her muesli.
It was a photo.
As an older woman.
Same freckles, same angular features, same fly-away, red-gold wavy shoulder-length hair.
Janey and her mum shared the same distinctive colouring, but while Lydia had been a stunning beauty, the woman in the photo, whoever she was, was only vaguely pretty, like Janey.
'What on earth?!' Janey exclaimed, holding up the photo to show Gabs's family, who were all standing around the kitchen eating their breakfast as fast as their stomachs could stand it.
'Is that you?' said Gabs, wrinkling her nose. 'Because if it is, it must be some kind of joke. You look about forty!'
'What does the letter say, Janey?' asked Mrs Epstein cautiously.
'Yeah, read it!' Gabs's younger brother added through a mouthful of toast.
Janey unfolded the closely typed, single-page letter and began to read out loud.
Dear Jane. Or may I call you Janey?
No doubt you are as surprised by the enclosed photo of me as I was on receiving the photo of you.
'This is making no sense at all,' Janey muttered, studying the woman's photo again.
'Keep reading,' Mr Epstein urged. Everyone was so intrigued they'd stopped eating and forgotten all about the time.
I'm devastated that this finds you too late for me to have met your mother, Lydia. I don't quite know what to feel. Delighted to have found you at last, but angry? sad? bitter? to have missed out on meeting the Gordons' lost daughter. Because, you see, I was one too. And would happily have stayed that way, until your grandparents used a private investigator to track me down when they realised exactly how stubborn your mother was, and that she was never coming back.
Janey grinned mistily and continued reading.
Your grandparents were proud and difficult people. They refused to acknowledge their mistakes. But like you, I was a mistake, if you don't mind me calling you that. I was their mistake, twelve years before Lydia was born and while your grandfather was still married to someone else.
Janey gasped as the implications sank in. 'Those old hypocrites!' she said, taking a steadying breath.
They couldn't find her, but they found me. And they left me all their money, did you know that? Because they had no one left to give it to.
Astonished, Gabs and Janey stared at each other for a moment before Janey read on.
I should very much like to get to know you and would like to invite you to spend your upcoming school holidays with me in Rome. My daughter, Freddy (Federica), is almost your age and would love to meet her new cousin. All my details are below, and a call to the Department of Foreign Affairs should establish my credentials to your guardian's satisfaction.
Janey looked quickly across the table at Mr Epstein. He nodded. 'Shouldn't be too hard to prove if this Celia Albright is the genuine article.'
What a mess this all is, but ultimately a happy one. Call me on the number below? I'll arrange everything, of course.
Yours in anticipation, your aunt (!),
Everybody was silent for a long moment before Janey said tearfully, 'Mum would've loved a trip to Rome. Rome! Imagine that.' It seemed as faraway and exotic as the moon.
'Do you think she knew?' Gabs asked, handing Janey a tissue. 'About Celia, and all that?'
Janey shook her head. 'I doubt it. But it wouldn't have changed anything. She would never have agreed to give me away, like my grandmother must have given Celia away. Like, like ... a parcel. Isn't it funny how things turn out?'
'Right,' Mr Epstein interrupted, 'the sooner I get you lot off my hands, the sooner I can start making some calls on Janey's behalf. We 've got a Roman holiday to organise, girls.'
'Wait till you tell the others!' said Gabs as she and Janey scraped their chairs back and headed for the door.CHAPTER 2
Janey Gordon was one of those girls who everyone just liked.
She wasn't particularly good at sport, or one of the beautiful crowd, or even the slightest bit musical, but she was just nice. After spending time with Janey Gordon, most people felt better about life, the universe and everything. She had a gentle way of listening and talking things through that made a whole lot of sense. So when word got around Selbourne High that Janey was looking down the barrel of an all-expenses-paid trip to Rome, everyone was genuinely happy for her, especially after the year she'd had. All year, people had discreetly looked the other way when the strain of her mum's illness had caused her to have the occasional minor meltdown.
Within a few hours, Gabs's dad had verified Celia Albright's identity and position as Second Secretary at the Australian Embassy in Rome. Arrangements were made for Janey to make her first ever overseas trip, fully paid for by her new aunt. Mr Epstein had also told Janey that she'd have a debit card linked to the modest sum of money her mum had left her. He lectured her about sticking to a budget and not blowing the entire amount on a two-week holiday. Janey's eyes had filled as she nodded, knowing how hard her mum had worked to save that money.
Excerpted from The Sweet Life by Rebecca Lim. Copyright © 2008 Rebecca Lim. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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