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What Kate Did Next
By Lisa Heidke
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2010 Lisa Heidke
All rights reserved.
I never thought I'd be the sort of person to have a midlife crisis. I'm not even sure I ever believed in such a thing! And I certainly never thought I'd be the sort of person to give up on the dream of what I wanted for myself.
When I was twenty, in my final year of photography, I hoped that by the time I turned thirty-five, I'd have:
1. A gorgeous, happy husband and two sweet-natured daughters who I'd be like a big sister to;
2. A successful photography business that allowed me creative freedom and financial independence as well as time to lunch, shop and travel, and;
3. The confidence and desire to pursue my dreams.
Basically, whenever I daydreamed about my future, I was living the perfect life.
Well, I'm about to celebrate my thirty-sixth birthday and I'm not exactly what I'd hoped I'd be. I've got the husband and two kids part happening, but as far as the illustrious photography career, well ... in between running after my husband, Matthew, grocery shopping, and schlepping the kids to and from their social engagements, I don't have the energy for anything else.
There was a time when photography was my life's passion. My grandmother lit the spark when I was very young. She had a fabulous collection of black-and-white photos and I was struck by their significance, each print linked to a fascinating adventure in her life, be it camel racing in Egypt or marching for peace in Sydney during the Vietnam War.
'History, Katie,' she'd say, examining a beloved photo with a magnifying glass. 'The exact moment this image was captured will never come to pass again.'
When I was seven, she gave me her cherished Hasselblad. It fascinated me – learning the intricacies of the fixed-focus lens, discovering the dual positions for sun and cloud, and using the disposable flash for indoors. I still treasure it. After school, I turned my passion into a career I loved, attending Sydney College of the Arts. In my final year, I won a photography scholarship overseas.
Back then, I had ambition. It didn't seem unreasonable to want it all. After six months abroad and only a year at the Australian, I went out on my own and managed a hectic freelance schedule. I was one of those people who could cope (and produce amazing photographs) in unpredictable weather. My portfolio of natural-disaster photos was particularly impressive – bushfires in southern Victoria, drought in central New South Wales, cyclones and widespread flooding in Queensland – you name it, I was there, capturing images which revealed emotions that couldn't be put into words.
After Lexi, my now thirteen-year-old, was born, having it all became increasingly difficult. I retained my favourite clients and still did my best work outdoors, although I cut back my hours drastically. But I soon realised that unless you keep accepting jobs and upping your profile, people forget about you. Someone with newer, fresher ideas and a sharper eye comes along ... and whammo, they're the 'next big thing' and you're a distant memory. So when Lexi turned two, I went back to working full time, building up my portfolio again.
I must have been seven months pregnant with Angus when I drove out to western New South Wales to photograph rampaging grasshoppers threatening to take over the town of Moree. The photos I took won me several awards and led to a spate of commissions from Australian Geographic.
Not that I could fulfil them.
I assumed I'd keep working at the same frenetic pace after Angus was born. But it wasn't long before having it all proved impossible, what with a daughter starting school, a baby, breastfeeding, housework, life.
So, my photography career came to a standstill. I wasn't offered top assignments anymore because I couldn't dash off at a moment's notice to flood-ravaged plains and infernos threatening the bush. After a while, I settled for a two-day-a-week job at a portrait studio where I was stuck indoors all the time. I didn't last long.
Angus is eight now. Sadly, I have no career and, I have to admit, my confidence is at an all-time low. So much for living the perfect life.
So when I walked into my house this afternoon, laden with groceries I'd picked up on the way home from Angus's swimming class, to a phone message that went like this, 'Hi Katie, it's Fern. Great talking at swimming this afternoon. Listen, hoping you can help me out of a fix. Our assistant photographer is a no-show for a couple of weeks and I immediately thought of you. You'd be perfect. Give me a call,' I felt a rush of adrenaline.
The thought of getting back behind the camera professionally, was thrilling – and terrifying. I'd kept taking photos even though I was no longer being paid for them, but my skills haven't advanced since the late nineties. These days it was mostly digital – downloading CompactFlash cards and retouching on computer screens. Meanwhile, I worked out of a makeshift darkroom, an old laundry at the back of the garage.
I played Fern's message again. '... you'dbeperfectgivemeacall.' She always ran her words together.
I hesitated, worried I couldn't live up to Fern's expectations. I regarded the mountain of groceries littering the kitchen floor. They'd probably last all of three days before I had to go out and do it all over again.
I decided calling Fern back and having a chat couldn't hurt. Besides, I couldn't remember the last time someone called me perfect.
Fern McLeod and I had met doing photography at college. But after our first year, she switched to a Bachelor of Commerce at Sydney University, deciding she was more suited to corporate life. We remained great friends though, even flatting together for six months.
These days she was a guru in the magazine world. I'd hardly seen her in the last ten years and then suddenly I'd seen her twice in as many days, the most recent being at Angus's final swimming lesson this afternoon. We stopped and chatted and she told me she had four kids, all under ten years old, one still in nappies. She was cheering her kids on as they were doing their strokes, phone in one ear. And she looked immaculate. Immaculate. Matching toe, nail and lip colours. Hair styled. (Great colour. No split ends. No grey.) A size eight at most, she was wearing a pink Lisa Ho sundress – in the middle of winter. Meanwhile, I was wearing ancient jeans, a T-shirt and faded hoodie, sitting on the most uncomfortable plastic chair, slumped in a heap, with barely enough enthusiasm to nod as Angus swam past me. Seeing her made me want to crawl into a hole and die.
'Fern, it's Kate,' I said, after negotiating my way past numerous assistants at the number she'd given me.
'Kate, thankgoodnessyoucalled. I'm in a spot. Short story, our photographic assistant had an accident today. I need a fill-in for two, three weeks max. Minimal travel, flexible hours, great pay. You'd be doing me a huge favour and it'd be great if you could start tomorrow – today, really.'
'Tomorrow?' I said, fear and excitement pulsing through me. I couldn't possibly start a new job tomorrow.
Clearly distracted, Fern took my question as a statement.
'Great, Katie, you're a doll. Tomorrow, here at the Bosanova building in Crows Nest, say eight o'clock. I'll give you the lowdown then.' Fern hung up before I could protest.CHAPTER 2
With Lexi at netball practice and Angus busy with his homework, I sifted through the day's mail and was momentarily delighted when I spied a parcel from my mother-in-law. Early birthday present. It was a book, imaginatively titled Don'ts for Wives, by Blanche Ebbutt, published in 1913 – 1913 for God's sake! Was this Carol's subtle way of commenting on the state of my marriage? I started flicking through the pages, sighing loudly as I read old-fashioned advice such as: Don't think it beneath you to put out your husband's slippers. Where? In the garbage bin?
But then, on the next page, Blanche wrote: Don't think you can each go your own way ... in important matters, you want to pull together. I actually stopped and considered her words. Pulling together and walking the same path was what Matthew and I didn't do often enough, and really should.
A few sentences later, an ancient gem about not letting the sun go down on an argument appeared. Ha! That old chestnut. I flung the book down onto the kitchen bench where it landed with a thud, causing my cat to snuffle unattractively. Blanche, you're not sucking me in. Matthew and I often end the night in silence ... it's not the end of the world.
I was sitting at the same kitchen bench, surrounded by several ancient photography portfolios, when my mother appeared.
'Katie, I knocked, but ...'
'Look at these, Mum,' I said, shoving an enormous folder of black-and-white prints of Central Park under her nose. 'Remember when I won that scholarship to New York?'
Mum looked through the folder and read the lecturer's comments aloud. 'Technical aspects outstanding; lighting and composition intuitively conquered ... Looking forward to attending Kate's future exhibitions ... Natural talent in abundance ... A star in the making.
' 'How did I go from dreaming that one day my photos would be hanging in galleries around the world, to this?' I asked, gesturing at the messy kitchen.
'I always thought there'd be more to my life than ...' I shook my head, unable to continue.
'More than what?' Mum asked.
'Remember Fern McLeod?'
Mum looked blank. 'No.'
'Yes, you do. I was at college with her. Anyway, she's asked if I'd like to do some photography for one of the magazines she publishes, just filling in for a couple of weeks. I said yes.'
'That's great,' said Mum, smiling.
'Yeah, but I'm worried about all the new technology,' I said, staring at my latest portfolio: several candid photos of my sister, Robyn, in full pregnant glory. 'I guess most of the manual setting-up work will be the same, but the closest I've come to working with digital is taking happy snaps with Angus's Canon.'
Mum made sympathetic clucking noises and started unpacking the groceries. 'You worry too much. You've been offered an opportunity to do something you love. Enjoy the moment.'
'Oh, and to top it off, Carol sends me this book for my birthday!' I said, ignoring Mum and picking up the offending tome. 'Don'ts for Wives. Is this meant to be a joke?'
'Carol's just trying to help. She's from the country –'
'She lives in Adelaide!' I threw the book back down on the bench.
'Speaking of birthdays, is Matthew taking you out?' Mum asked.
'I wouldn't have a clue. He's so caught up with pressures at work, downsizing, retrenchments, he may not even remember.'
In the old days, Matt would never have forgotten. We always made a special effort for each other's birthdays. One year he surprised me by taking me to see the musical Mamma Mia, knowing how much I loved ABBA. We stayed at the Hyatt in the city for a romantic evening and followed it up the next day with a full five-hour shopping spree. It was fantastic. For his birthday that year, I bought tickets to see We Will Rock You, in Melbourne. Queen was more his speed.
In recent years, romantic gestures like those had fallen by the wayside, along with a lot of other intimate stuff.
'It's important you and Matthew spend time together, Katie – and I don't mean the time you spend sorting out the kids' schedules for the week. You need couple time to keep a marriage happy.' Her eyes strayed towards Don'ts for Wives. 'Strangely compelling title, don't you think?'
'Mum!' I didn't need to have this conversation right now. Besides, what did my mother know about happy marriages? My father had walked out on us years ago and she hadn't had a serious relationship since.
'I saw your dad today,' she said, uncannily reading my thoughts.
'Really?' I said, looking up. 'How could you when he lives in Canada?'
'I sort of ran into him,' Mum replied.
'Ran into him? How? Where?' I said, just as Angus walked in, then made his regular beeline for the kitchen cupboard to fill up.
'How's my little guy?' Mum said, reaching out to hug him.
'Good, Nanna. What's to eat?'
After making multiple cheese and Vegemite Jatz, I turned back to Mum. 'You were saying?'
'He was at the art gallery and we literally bumped into each other looking at the same Archibald entry.'
I pulled a half-empty bottle of riesling out of the fridge. 'Hang on,' I said, pouring two glasses and taking a large gulp before passing Mum hers. 'I don't know why you'd ever want to speak to him again.'
'Katie! We had a civilised conversation.'
'Obviously I was surprised to see him but it wasn't as awkward as you might expect.'
'Awkward! How awkward should I expect it to be for you to bump into the man who walked out on us twenty years ago?'
If my memory's correct, just after Dad moved out, he happened to discover an intellectual and spiritual connection with another woman. Mum found out when, in an attempted reconciliation, she flew to Melbourne to surprise him. As it turned out, Mum was the one who was surprised. Walking into Dad's suite at the Windsor Hotel, she found him and his intellectual and spiritual connection in bed together. It was three o'clock on a Thursday afternoon.
Dad later tried to explain to Robyn and me that he'd fallen under the spell of a truly inspirational woman. It didn't hurt that this truly inspirational woman was fifteen years his junior and had spectacular breasts and lovely legs. Soon after their divorce, Dad married Miss Inspirational. Since then, my contact with him had been practically nonexistent. It helped that his new wife was Canadian and they were living in Vancouver. These days I rarely thought about Dad, and I tried never to think about his second wife.
'Katie, I know that when your father left us I was very angry. But that was a long time ago. It was lovely to see him today. Of course, he wanted to know all about you and Robyn and the children.'
'Of course. That's why he's kept in touch so diligently.'
'He did try, and I understand why you and Robyn turned your back on him in support of me, but he is your father, after all.'
'Don't remind me.'
Mum looked out the window and smiled. 'You know, I'd played the scenario in my head so many times. What our first meeting would be like after all those years. In the early days, I hoped it would be at his funeral.'
'That's more like it.'
'But when I saw him today, I realised I'm glad Bob's alive. None of my anger for him exists anymore. I was happy to see him.'
Happy to see him? I couldn't quite comprehend what Mum was saying. Or why she was talking so fondly about the adulterer who had deserted her.
* * *
'Great news,' I said to Matthew when he phoned an hour later. 'Remember Fern who manages Modular Magazines? I saw her at swimming today and she's hired me to do some photography on one of her titles for the next couple of weeks.'
'That's fantastic! When?' Matthew asked.
'I start tomorrow, actually. So how about we go out tonight to celebrate? I could ask Mum to keep an eye on the kids.'
It had been months since Matthew and I had gone to a restaurant by ourselves. And even longer since we'd made love. Matthew has a stressful job. At the end of a long hard day, all he's up for is Rupert, our black labrador, licking his toes while he catches up with the emails on his BlackBerry, the ones he missed retrieving during his forty-minute drive home.
'Tonight's tricky, hon, with the Americans in town and all. I was hoping you might –'
'Just an informal dinner. Don't go to any trouble ... but they need to eat. I promise we'll celebrate your new job another night.'
A simple dinner party for six. Sure, no trouble! Even better if it's the night before I start work on the first paid photographic assignment I've had in years.
I bundled Angus into the car and drove to the local shops to pick up a few extras, like a main course. Then rushed back home and set about creating the perfect dinner for guests from overseas who were expecting a home-cooked Australian meal. I marinated a whole snapper in white wine with ginger and garlic, baked a pavlova with a Cointreau sauce and created a blender full of sublime mango cocktails. Perfect. With these organisational skills, maybe I'd be able to manage to return to a working life after all.
I was in control and on schedule. In fact, I was ahead of schedule so I picked up the day's newspaper to flick through. Just as I sat down, Lexi bowled into the kitchen.
'Lexi, your hair,' I started ... then stood open-mouthed. Honey-blonde since birth, Lexi's hair was now blue-black.
Excerpted from What Kate Did Next by Lisa Heidke. Copyright © 2010 Lisa Heidke. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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