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By Jennifer Mortimer
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2014 Jennifer Mortimer
All rights reserved.
I am a loser when it comes to love and family. I have no husband and no children. My birth mother left when I was a baby and my father died when I was twelve. Now Mom, too, is leaving me, inexorably, one marble at a time.
When I discovered my father's papers in her desk, I thought they might hold some clue to his New Zealand family. And so it turned out. I found an address in Wellington, New Zealand, on the back of a photograph, and when I Googled the address, up popped an apartment to rent. How could I not take it?
My old professor taught that good decisions are made from good logic and good information; a and b therefore c. You can write it up in a formula. So long as you know what a and b are, and your formula is right, then c is an obvious answer.
Sometimes the factors are way more complicated, but they say the human brain can process a mass of information and instinctively come up with the best decision, even though you can't trace the logic. I'd like to think that's true, but how would you know it's the right decision if you don't know how you got there?
Fifty years ago, my father followed a pretty girl home to New Zealand and found love, family, and a career, although he lost them all when he met my mother.
Fifty days ago, I decided to follow in his footsteps.
Now I pause and look at the tall villa crouched amongst blossoming trees and wonder what the hell I'm doing. The wind catches my hair, blowing it over my eyes, blinding me until I catch the errant strands and tuck them behind my ears.
Then I grasp the handle of my battered suitcase and step onto the path.
A small boy rushes past, tugging a fragment of cloth attached to a set of dog's teeth, followed by what at first impression seems to be a golden sheep but is a large woolly dog.
They stop when they see me. The dog drops the cloth and barks. Rowf, rowf, rowf!
I stand my ground. "Hello Rowfer, good boy!" I hope.
"Her name is Polly, not Ralph," says the child. "And she's a girl."
The woolly beast wags her tail. I offer my hand. "How do you do, Polly?"
She gives me her hairy foot. I shake it solemnly.
"Rowf!" she says and wiggles her bottom.
"Indeed. And I am Lin."
The boy looks at me. "Top floor?"
He sticks out his own grubby paw. "I'm Michael."
"Pleased to meet you, Michael."
A statuesque woman with long, fair hair emerges from the ground floor apartment. She examines me with shrewd green eyes edged by laughter lines and dark brows that curve up at the outer edges.
"You must be our new neighbor," she says. "I'm Sally Trumpet. I see you've met my son."
"And his trusty companion," I reply, and offer my hand. "Linnet Mere."
Sally shakes my hand and asks, "Why don't you pop in tomorrow night for a drink?"
"Thank you. I'd like that."
The penthouse smells of the lilies squatting in a vase on the table. The card says "Welcome! Alienne," which strikes me as a little impolite until I recognize the name of the company that rented me the apartment.
I touch the soft gray leather of the sofa then walk to the window. Puffs of white cloud break free from the eastern hills and scud across the azure sky, while in the harbor yachts dart across the sea.
Although I had traveled New Zealand several times before, I always flew direct to Queenstown and missed one of New Zealand's best-kept secrets. You can't beat Wellington on a good day, they say, and today is one of those days. Glistening in the sun, nestled in tall green hills, and cradled by the cobalt sea, Wellington is absolutely, positively gorgeous.
The hot sun streams in the window and warms my skin. Below in the pohutukawa tree birds twitter, and faint music meanders up through the streets as someone practices piano. A lawn mower drones in the distance. A feeling of gentle well-being washes over me.
I made the right decision.
Like my father I might find love, and like my father, I might find a family in this land of hope and plenty. The first country to give women the vote and where they say the glass ceiling is thinner. A Pacific island with a fair and open culture that looks both to the East and the West.
The land where I was born and the land where Ben lives.
So while you might say it was fate that led me to the house where my father once lived, I know it was logic.CHAPTER 2
I love wandering the aisles of supermarkets to see what special foods the locals eat, what fruits and vegetables grow here, and what kind of wine they make.
I buy grapes and strawberries, Agria potatoes, wild rocket, baby carrots, and Cardrona lamb cutlets. I pick out fresh Zorganic milk, cheeses, a dozen bluff oysters, coffee from L'affare, and a jar of Marmite spread. New Zealand fancies itself as a maker of excellent wine, I know, so I meander through the shelves and load up twelve different bottles to try.
When I get back to the apartment, I eat the oysters with a glass of Sauvignon Blanc at my table looking out over the city, and then I descend to the ground floor bearing a gift of cheese.
Sally opens the door and surveys me with a friendly smile. The fair hair is now bundled into a coil that slips down one white shoulder.
"Right on time," she says. "I've just finished reading Michael his bedtime story. I hope you like wine."
Do bears defecate in the woods? "I love wine."
Sally's living room is like a Wedgwood bowl; high ceilings, pale green walls, and ornate white woodwork. Polly hastens over and thrusts her head under my hand. I rub the tight gold curls on the top of her head, which causes an ecstatic wiggling of the back end of her body. I like dogs but I've never been able to own one. It wouldn't be kind to keep leaving a dog behind whenever I move on. I couldn't do that to a dog.
"What breed is she? Or is she a mongrel?"
"She's a Labradoodle — a cross between a poodle and a Labrador, very fashionable at the moment because they don't shed hair. So fashionable that she cost more than buying both the poodle and the Labrador."
"So she's a mongrel."
"A designer mongrel."
I must remember that one. I am a mongrel myself, but an accidental one. As if she has heard my thoughts, Sally asks where I'm from.
"I can tell from your voice that you are American, but your eyes are from somewhere else."
"I grew up in America." She lifts an eyebrow and waits for me to complete the answer. "My mother was Chinese."
"Do you see much of her family?"
I hate talking about my mother. I hate admitting that she left while I was still only a baby. When I was a child, I felt ashamed because she must have decided I wasn't worth sticking around for. I don't care now, of course, but it is still sad to know your mother didn't love you enough to stay.
"Are you a Wellingtonian?" I ask.
"I grew up here, but I lived in Christchurch for a while. We came back after the quakes. I work at the hospital," she says, tilting her head at one wall as if the hospital were just through there. "What about you?"
"I'm looking for a job," I reply.
"What are you?"
I smile. "Hard to say. But I'm looking for work as a project manager."
I don't tell her I was born here and I don't tell her I'm looking for my sisters. That quest is too private, and I am looking for a job.
She refills my glass with a practiced twist of the wrist. "I like the color of your hair," she says. "Nice shade of red."
"Thank you. I chose it myself."
She laughs. I don't tell her I was trying to match my father's hair color. He used to call me his little hothead and ruffle my thick brown mop of hair. Just like your dad, but you don't show it, he'd said. That's good.
Suddenly a stuffed duck sails through the air, closely followed by Polly the dog. She catches the duck and skids to a halt, then returns her prey to the little angel in white pajamas who is standing by the bedroom door.
"Back to bed!" calls Sally. Michael giggles and returns to his room.
"Is Michael's father around?" I ask.
"No. At least I don't think so. I don't know who he was."
"Don't look so ridiculously impassive!" she says. "Artificial insemination from an anonymous sperm donor. I found myself pushing forty with no man and I wanted a baby before it was too late."
It has taken me years to perfect my carefully constructed poker face but I give her a genuine smile, wide enough to show my crooked tooth, because you have to let your guard down, don't you, if you want to make friends.
"He's a cute kid."
"He's a monster," she replies proudly.
Sally swings her legs up and settles herself on the sofa with her feet up on one sofa arm and her swan neck tilted back over the other.
"Damn," she says. "I'm getting fat."
How can you respond to a statement like that from a woman you barely know?
"Mmm?" I murmur.
"What keeps you so thin?" she asks. "Bitch."
"Stress. When I get busy I forget to eat."
"That reminds me —" She goes into the kitchen to fetch the cheese, and when she returns, she talks about art.
I start to relax. The room is warm and the sofa comfortable. In the corner an iPod plugged into an elegant white speaker system is playing Aimee Mann. Sally tells me about a band she likes. I tell her about a concert I went to some months earlier, and wince as I remember my companion on that night, the profile of his face against the sky as we sat on the walls and watched the spectacle.
I remember his laughter when the fat lady sang and the scent of his skin as I leaned my head on his shoulder. The taste of the cheap red wine when I kissed his lips.
Sally asks about the music, but I talk, instead, of books I've been meaning to read. We kill the bottle and consummate our tentative new friendship with a promise to meet up on Friday night.
My ears sing from the wine I have drunk. I press my fingers to my temples, but I can't stop the memories flooding back. Images of Ben, dreams dreamed and lost.
My father never talked about New Zealand. I think that's why Ben intrigued me when I met him that first time. I wanted to know all about the land of hope and plenty. He took his time telling me and, like Scheherazade's sultan, by the time the last story ended, I was hooked.
"Lucky at cards, unlucky in love," the proverb says, although I work for a living rather than playing cards. The work gives me a good life and, yes, I would say I've been lucky in the jobs I've had.
But love? That's another story.CHAPTER 3
Friday nights can be lonely in a new town. You don't want to go looking for Mr. Goodbar by yourself, so you sit at home with your table set for one and try not to finish the whole bottle of wine.
I have friends — Facebook tells me so. Every month or so, when I remember, I log in and post a message. But most of my Facebook friends are as busy as me. We don't engage in witty repartee across the Internet, just the occasional check to see who has changed jobs, or country of residence, or partner.
Sally shows promise as a friend. I like the gleam in her eyes when she pours another glass and that she knows a little about a lot of things. It is a myth that strong, successful women automatically like each other. We don't. If Sally and I worked together, we'd probably hate each other. But with the separation in our working lives, maybe we can manage some kind of friendship.
Sally says she has a great group of friends and I should come meet them. Perhaps I will find that sense of community I've seen in other people's lives, those people who have parents and brothers and sisters and cousins and aunts and uncles and nieces and nephews and friends and family friends and friends of family friends.
I find her sitting at the long bar, wearing a red velvet dress with a low neckline that shows off her shapely figure and white skin. She smiles and waves me to a seat beside a gorgeous young man with a halo of wild dark hair, who leans toward my neck and introduces himself as Karim. Loud music is playing, so it is hard to hear. I ask him what he does for a living, and he tells me he's a nurse.
"I was a doctor, but they do not recognize my qualifications," he says. "I must sit examinations to requalify."
"Where are you from originally?"
"Pakistan. My parents thought I would have better opportunities here, but I don't know. Sometimes I think I should give up and go back home."
The bar gets busier and my glass is filled again. I haven't eaten all day, so I think about slowing down, but then a waitress walks up and taps Sally on the arm and points. We head for the table, which is in an open-air atrium deep in the stomach of the restaurant. Fortunately, there are heaters because today is not one of the good days in Wellington. I find myself sitting next to Karim, with a new man on my other side. This one is older, with a receding hairline and spectacles, and has been quiet so far. He introduces himself as John from gastroenterology.
"Are you a specialist?" I ask.
He stares owlishly at me through his glasses. "I'm a nurse."
I eat carpaccio of yellowtail kingfish with rhubarb, grapefruit and ginger buckwheat, elegant but miniscule. The noise of happy eaters rings in my ears, and I am transported back to another meal in a place far away, in different company, a magnificent meal with too much wine — just like tonight.
I remember the bad call I made that night and think about slowing down, but the bottle in Sally's hand intervenes.
"Come on, Lin, finish this off, and we'll get another."
I ask her the question I should have asked when we first met. "What do you do at the hospital, Sally? Your e-mail said Ms. S. Trumpet, so I assumed you were a nurse."
"Doctors are such snobs," she says. "I'm a specialist, darling. We refer to ourselves as Mr. or Ms. to distinguish us from the GPs."
"I suppose you're a brain surgeon." I say, only half in jest.
"Me mum said with my clever hands I'd either be a seamstress or a surgeon. But I chose pathology. The hours are better."
"And you play doctors and nurses with nurses?"
"That's how it works. Doctors don't like competition. We prefer the deference of a sosh — socio-economic subordinate. Don't you?"
"I don't think I'd put it that way."
"No one does. We're all hyp hyp ... hypocrites."
She's not wrong. High-flying women may fancy alpha males, but we can't stay with one for long. We rip them to shreds when they annoy us and then they dump us for a gentler, sweeter model. If we're wise, we find a gentle, sweet man ourselves.
But I'm not going to think about that.
Sally pours the rest of the wine into my glass, pats Karim on the cheek, and sends him to fetch another bottle. John scowls at Karim's back and turns to me. He has been getting drunker as the night progresses and is now relaxed enough to speak. He comes from Palmerston North, he tells me belligerently when I ask. Now it is I who do not understand, so I force a smile and say, how nice.
"Are you taking the piss?" he asks.
I look at him blankly, and he turns away.
Later, we spill out of the restaurant and onto the street where there is a fountain made of large, colored buckets of water tipping into each other with a splash. I must be drunker than I thought because I seem to see a hobbit pissing in the fountain. He turns and yes, dammit, it is a hobbit, Frodo I think, although he is dressed in jeans rather than a hobbit cloak. I shake my head and follow Sally up the road to a doorway guarded by two ostentatiously large men. Sally hands them money and they step aside to let us enter.
The room at the end of the corridor is dark apart from the lights pinpointing the musicians and the strip lighting over the bar. The place is throbbing with sound, like the blood pumping through my head, thud, thud, and thud. Sally disappears into the gloom. I push through hot bodies to reach the bar, but she isn't there, so I order myself a cocktail. Something with chocolate in it I say and turn back to the crowd, running my eyes over the dim shapes to see if I can find her and the others who were supposed to join us.
After five minutes of fruitless searching, I give up and prop myself against the bar, hoping that I will be found, trying to look nonchalant. The alcohol has caught up with me and my head fills with haze as the music thuds on through my brain.
Excerpted from Trilemma by Jennifer Mortimer. Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Mortimer. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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