‘I’m sorry Claire, we’re going to have to let you go.’
I wasn’t sure how I was expected to react to this.
‘The thing is, we had to make some cuts,’ Charlie said, loosening his collar. A bead of sweat moved down the pink rolls of his neck and disappeared under his shirt. ‘The economy isn’t great, and people just aren’t buying newspapers anymore…’
I stood up. ‘It’s fine, Charlie, you don’t have to explain.’
‘We’ll give you a great reference,’ he called as I walked out of his office.
Bullshit they’d give me a good reference. I knew everybody there hated me, but I didn’t care because I hated them right back. When I started that job I was promised ‘opportunities for growth’. Ha. What I had envisaged as an exciting journalism career had quickly disintegrated into three years of getting vanilla slice for Chunky Charlie and occasionally compiling the death notices if someone else was off sick. To be honest I wasn’t really shocked they’d sacked me and tried to blame it on the GFC – I wasn’t exactly Little Miss Sunshine around the office.
‘I’m sorry Claire, but I think you should move out.’
That, on the other hand, had winded me. Looking into Sean’s face and his puppy-dog eyes, my first instinct was to reach over and slap him. I went for the second, less melodramatic option. ‘What? Where is this coming from? If this is about me staining the towels with fake tan, I told you I’d buy new ones.’
‘You know things have been rocky for a while,’ he said. ‘You can’t tell me that you hadn’t seen this coming.’
Okay, so things weren’t perfect, but what relationship is?
The funny thing was, I should have been upset. I should have cried and thrown myself on the ground like a ballerina pretending to be a giant swan. My boyfriend was dumping me. I had lost my job and my relationship and the roof over my head in the space of two hours. But in truth, I knew I should have been prepared for this. You’re with someone and it’s all wonderful, then the cracks begin to show and their little habits that you used to think were cute start to drive you crazy and next thing you know, you find yourself alone on a plane to the arse-end of the world. Tasmania.
Some woman was flying toward me as I walked out of the terminal, arms outstretched. She flung them around me and squeezed. I coughed, half with the strong scent I couldn’t quite work out emanating from her, and half from spitting her wild curly hair out of my mouth. Who the hell was this crackpot?
‘Mum,’ I said, looking her over as she led me out of the airport. ‘You look … different.’
‘Don’t I look like an old hippie?’ she said, playfully bumping my hip. ‘I’ll tell you what, the amount I used to spend on make-up and shampoo, I’ve saved a bomb. Whoops, don’t say bomb at an airport!’
She cracked up at her own joke. I hardly recognised her. It can’t have been that long since I’d seen her … two years at most. Gone was the lawyer in the suit with the mobile permanently attached to her ear, whose favourite pastime was yelling at someone on the phone. In fact, I think this was the first time I had actually seen her laugh.
‘So …’ I said as we drove home, racking my brains for conversation. ‘How’s the farm thing going?’
‘Oh, we love it,’ she said, reaching over to tune the radio and settling for some old seventies song. ‘The travellers come from all over to pick the apples, it’s so interesting. I know you were a little shocked when we told you we were going to move here, but it just felt right. We needed a change, and now we wouldn’t leave it for the world.’ She wound down the window and sang out. ‘Hey farmer farmer, put away the DDT now! Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees … pleeeeease!’ She turned back to me. ‘And how are you, sweetheart? After everything that happened?’
I looked out the window. ‘I don’t want to talk about it. It’s done.’
‘But you must be feeling a little upset, you were with Sean for two years. You know what would take your mind off things? I’m going to a meeting tomorrow night, we’re trying to stop some deforestation –’
‘Mum!’ I snapped. She kept quiet the rest of the journey. I wanted to say something to lighten the mood, but couldn’t find the words.
We pulled off the country road and through a gate. Up on the hill I could see their house. It looked like a log cabin from an American movie, with smoke billowing from the chimney. Mum parked and jumped down from the truck. ‘Look, here’s your dad now!’
Unless my name was Lisa-Marie Presley, that was not my father. The silver Elvis suit hugged his belly, the fake jewels glinting in the sun.
‘Don’t look so shocked, Claire Bear!’ He pulled off his black wig and sunglasses. ‘Give your old dad a hug!’
My dad, unlike Mum, did smell the same as I remembered. A mixture of Old Spice, coffee and something else, something sweet I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I remembered curling up next to him when I was little as he napped in the afternoons. I’d lie there for hours, trying to figure out what that smell was. I never worked it out.
‘I’m just on my way to work,’ he said.
I raised an eyebrow. ‘Work? Are you aware of how you’re dressed?’
He laughed and said, ‘I’m a marriage celebrant now.’ Like that cleared things up.
‘Do the people know you’re coming like that? You might want give them some warning, it’s supposed to be the happiest day of their lives. It’d put a dampener on things if the bride’s mother died of shock.’
‘He runs a Vegas-themed wedding chapel near Hobart,’ Mum said. ‘It’s called Gayceland.’
‘No, Gayceland,’ said Dad. ‘Since the bill was passed all the gays are coming here to get married. It’s been great for tourism. I have to be off, I’ve got Trace and Shirl from town coming in for a rehearsal.’
He waved and climbed into the truck. I was still standing there with my mouth hanging open as he drove away. I really didn’t know how to react. Your dad dressing up as Elvis and performing gay marriages – you couldn’t make that shit up. Mum put her arm around me. I felt myself stiffen, unsure how to react to that too.
‘Doesn’t he seem happy? Better than back home when he was always between jobs. This has been so good for his self-esteem.’
I didn’t know what to say, so watched in silence. Part of his cape was caught in the door and it flapped in the wind as he drove away. By the next morning I knew I hated farms. It was a bloody zoo. So far I had almost tripped over a pregnant dog, a pig had snorted at me, and one of the goats kept staring at me which was creeping me out. My hands were freezing, my feet were killing me from Mum’s gumboots, and I needed a coffee – none of this dandelion tea crap Mum had lying around. It reminded me of the last time we’d been to Tasmania when I was fifteen, one of the only family holidays we’d had all together. Most of it consisted of Dad and I trying to keep the noise down while Mum stomped about on the phone to her law firm, trying to sort out some Big Case and abusing her colleagues.
We stayed at a farm like this, and one morning I was standing at the fence with a basket in my hand. Mum had suggested we go get some eggs – meaning I got the eggs while she watched and criticised. I really didn’t want to go in there. In my opinion chickens were mean, spiteful creatures, and I knew that the moment I stepped in there I would be savaged, and my remains would be discovered months later covered in feathers and claw marks.
However, amazingly, for one moment she wasn’t glued to her phone, so I felt like I should do it.
I took a deep breath and walked through the gate. I stopped in front of the coop, my gumboots squelching into the wet grass. How would the chooks react to me taking their eggs? Were they territorial like bears? Did they have teeth in those wicked little beaks?
I lifted the wooden flap and tentatively reached in. I closed my hand around the closest egg, keeping an eye out for any vicious chicken that might attack me at any moment, and took it out. I turned it around in my hand. It was different to eggs that you buy in a supermarket. It had freckles like it had been out in the sun.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a large goose was charging at me like a Spanish bull. I fell backwards in shock, the egg flying out of my hand and cracking open on the side of the coop, yolk running down the side.
The goose was honking in my face, running around and flapping its wings, nipping at my arms and legs with its beak. I screamed, jumped up and ran towards the gate, hands covering my head. I jumped up and climbed over the fence and fell on the ground again.
I got up and felt the wet patch on the back of my jeans from the mud. I looked up, but Mum was gone. I could see her sitting on a log a few metres away, back turned, talking heatedly on the phone. And that’s when it finally dawned on me, what I realised I knew all along. That I would always come second.
Well, she could get her own bloody eggs now. Just because I was stuck here on their farm didn’t mean I was going to be doing chores.
‘Good morning!’ she said brightly as I walked into the kitchen.
I smiled awkwardly in reply, unsure how to react to this personality one-eighty.
‘Darling, you remember I mentioned the meeting yesterday?’ she said.
‘Well, what do you think? Don’t you want to come and see what it’s all about?’
No, I’d rather shave my legs with a cheese grater.
‘No thank you,’ I said.
Mum sighed. ‘I think you’d find it really interesting. Did you know that if this permit is granted, over seventy percent of the forest in the south-west will be open to loggers –’
‘Mum!’ I said, cutting her off. ‘No matter how many times you ask me, the answer will still be no. I’m not here to chain myself to a tree or run around banging a tribal drum, singing the wonders of Mother Earth.’
‘Why are you being so hostile? I thought you were here to spend time with us.’
‘I’m here because I got fired from my job and my boyfriend kicked me out. End of story.’
‘Leave me alone. That’s what you’re good at, right?’ I turned my back and walked away.
As soon as I did, I wanted to turn back, and grab my words from where they hung in the air. But I also wanted to tell her that I used to lie next to my dad and try to figure out his scent, and that at the same I’d try and imagine what my mother’s was. I came up with different combinations in my head – chocolate and raspberry, or lilies and musk. But every time I tried to imagine I came up short. It’s hard to remember the scent of someone who is never there, who was always working late and chooses her job over her family. In the end I stopped trying, and I closed my eyes and pretended that all three of us were lying there safe together. And then I’d open my eyes, and her side of the bed would be empty.
Say what you want about Tassie, but it sure knew how to put on a night-time spectacle. I hadn’t known there were so many stars in the sky.
‘I’ve got something for you, Claire Bear,’ said Dad, walking out onto the veranda. I was relieved to see that the shiny bodysuit was gone.
He held out a bowl with a large slab of pie. ‘Made from the apples picked in our orchard.’
‘I’m not that hungry for pie served with slatherings of guilt.’
‘Not even a very hot, sweet, sticky guilt pie with ice cream?’
The pale ice cream was melting over the hot pie, pooling at the bottom, making my mouth water. I took it from him, the bowl warming my hands.
I exhaled. ‘Look Dad, I know you’ve come up here to try and talk me into apologising, but you needn’t bother.’
He held up his hands. ‘I’m not here to tell you anything. Not even about how excited she’s been since you called and told us that you were coming. Or that she knows what she’s missed. Maybe this is her trying to reach out a bit.’
‘But she can’t just give me some apple pie and expect that it’s going to make everything okay.’
‘But maybe it’s a start.’
I looked out across the hills to the mountain in the distance. Back in the city you couldn’t look further than a few metres ahead of you because of the concrete buildings blocking your view. Somehow it was calming to look ahead to the horizon unobstructed.
Dad put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Let me know if you want some hot chocolate. I’m famous for it around here.’
‘Hot chocolate and apple pie? Don’t make me write to Jenny Craig to dob you in.’
He rubbed his stomach. ‘How do you think I got this?’
I couldn’t help smiling. When he was gone, I lifted up the bowl and inhaled. Then I stopped. That was it. The fragrance I’d noticed on Mum when she’d hugged me at the airport – it was the scent of apples.
Mum looked surprised to see me up so early the next morning. She was standing at the sink, dangling a dandelion tea bag in a lumpy mug.
‘I’ve been thinking,’ I said, leaning against the bench. ‘I think that an article on a group of loyal environmentalists trying to stop deforestation would be a perfect piece for my journalism portfolio, for when I start looking for a new job. It would really help me out to come along to your meeting.’
Mum tried to hide her look of surprise. ‘Well … so do I, darling. It’s very topical. Everyone’s into the environment these days.’
‘It’s not going to be a puff piece though.’ I pointed to her. ‘I’m going to write it as I see it. Journalistic integrity and all that. If you charge in there and boss everyone around like a tyrant, the world is going to know.’
She smiled and nodded. ‘I would be disappointed with anything less.’
I turned to walk away, but she came and hugged me from behind. I breathed in, locking that apple scent away in my memory, ready to take out whenever I needed it.