The brilliant new novel from the acclaimed author of Addition and Nine Days is here! Smart, funny and poignant, this is the kind of writing Toni Jordan has become known for. A trojan horse of a novel that examines our anxieties around relationships and families through the prism of a wild farce of love affairs and family complexities. Read an extract below.
The morning after my sister Caroline’s wedding to Henry, our mother smashed every dish in the house. Every plate, every glass, every saucer. The bone-china platters etched with roses that she’d piled with sandwiches and little cakes when she was president of our high school mothers club—these she cracked over her knee like kindling. The flutes that were a gift from some great-aunt for her engagement to our father, the set with stems like twigs that lived on the top shelf—these she hurled sideways with her old softball pitching arm and watched spear against the walls to explode in a shower of crystal. She shattered the glass in every framed photograph with her elbow, she overturned vases and fruit bowls. Apples thudded and rolled to all corners of the room, peaches cascaded and liquefied on impact.
I watched her from the doorway of what had been my room and I felt like a small child again, one who would never understand the currents beneath the surface of grown-ups. She advanced from cupboard to shelf to the divider above the kitchen bench, sometimes pausing to stamp on something particularly offensive and grind it into the carpet, and all the while her face was soft, without any trace of the tight wrinkles that sometimes framed her mouth or the tension stockpiled in her jaw line. Perhaps it was this gentle face, or maybe it was the occasional twist of her hips—it all seemed less Texas porcelain massacre and more avant garde interpretive dance. The early light through the big eastern windows made each individual shard glitter, like a mirror ball dying in a tragic disco explosion. And the noise! I’m amazed the neighbours didn’t come running, but that’s the whole point of the suburbs, I guess. Nice big yards, lots of space and privacy to start your own hydroponic weed farm or take up nudism or destroy all evidence of whatever it was my mother was trying to erase. When you know people too well, it’s difficult to give them a friendly wave as you put the bins out.
When she stopped and everything was quiet again, she wiped her brow with her sleeve. A thread of blood inched down her temple from where some flying chip had grazed her.
‘It’s all been for nothing,’ she said to me. ‘All of it. The last fifteen years.’
Caroline and Henry were in Bali by then. When they came home, tanned and massaged and pedicured with their pupils transformed from the usual circles into tiny love hearts, I told Caroline that Mum had been burgled by a well-known criminal bric-a-brac gang. Caroline was living in NewlywedLand, where the air smells of roses and tiny invisible string quartets lurk in every room waiting for your husband to arrive, then launch into ‘I’ve Had the Time of My Life’ on their tiny invisible violins.
‘Who would want that old rubbish?’ Caroline said. ‘People are morons.’
Not long after that, Mum sold everything and moved to an ashram in Uttarakhand where she’s known as Saraswati, and it was as though our past had been papered over.
Caroline and I haven’t seen her since, but every year birthday cards arrive in the mail, randomly. One year it might be August 6th and the next, January 31st. None of these dates coincides with the anniversary of my actual birth, even though my mother knows the date of my birth. She was definitely there at the time. These non-birthday cards all have a colourful Hindu goddess on the front—often wearing gold and red and a great deal of jewellery, sometimes with many arms— and inside Mum writes something like:
Dear Janice (or Dear Caroline, when it’s my sister’s non-birthday, or Dear Mercedes or Paris, when it’s Caroline’s girls’),
Happy Birthday! I love you! I miss you! This is the daughter of Lord Shiva, who was created from the tree, Kalpavriksha! Her name is Ashokasundari!
Remember, don’t be too good! Free yourself from expectation!
GIVE IN TO THE REVOLUTION IN YOUR SOUL!!!
Love, Saraswati (Mum) (Grandma)
When Caroline married Henry she was twenty-six and I was twenty-three and Mum was forty-nine. Fifteen years, then, was the amount of time that Mum raised us by herself after Dad left.
I thought Mum was unduly pessimistic. I’d always liked Henry. He was a different breed from the boys in my microbiology lab who strove all year, with some success, to grow colonies of bacteria in the shape of boobs. Henry was not only employed, he owned a suit. He was the most dashing of Caroline’s boyfriends and the only one she truly fell for, this big blond rugby player with thighs like legs of ham and sharp blue eyes and a degree in electrical engineering who drove a fourth-hand red BMW with enough dents to make it ironic instead of pretentious. Henry was on the fast track to success at Telstra. They adored each other.
Now it’s another fifteen years later. I’m in Caroline’s kitchen at ludicrous o’clock on a Saturday morning, leaning against open shelves filled with Caroline’s elegantly, eminently smashable dinner service, and I’m beginning to see Mum’s point.
Henry waved goodbye to solid some years ago when he swapped rugby for pinot and Foxtel. Now he’s soft, with an indoor pallor, and the blond hair is mostly a memory. He’s squatting on the floor of the dining room, balancing on the balls of his feet and his leather shoes are squeaking and the seams of his trousers are straining and his bones are creaking. He’s looking even paler than usual and his face is damp: a chubby vampire with a fever. He’s doing his best to eyeball his girls. My nieces, Mercedes and Paris. Henry, envisaging the world from the perspective of the four feet and under.
‘Let me put it this way,’ he says to them. ‘You like bananas, right? Everyone likes bananas.’
Some conferring is required. Paris stretches on her tippy toes and whispers in Mercedes’ ear. ‘Bananas are for school but at home we like mangoes better but only when Mummy cuts them up or else we have to sit in the bath,’ Mercedes says, after advisement.
‘Right. Mangoes. Sure. Well, marriage is like a mango.’
Henry folds his arms as he delivers this gem and from where I stand in the kitchen, it’s clear he expects it to make his case. His daughters, though, are a tough audience. None of us got much sleep last night and they are still pyjama-clad with tousled hair and that intoxicating warmth that small children have when they wake, but they’re solemn little people, staring steady and blue.
Henry runs his fingers through his strands. ‘Imagine if mangoes were all you got to eat, breakfast lunch and dinner. Even if mangoes were your favourite food, you’d be pretty sick of mangoes after fifteen years, wouldn’t you?’
‘Are biscuits allowed, for little lunch?’ says Paris, through Mercedes.
‘Mangoes or nothing.’
‘Can we have ice-cream on top? Just a tiny bit.’
‘Only mangoes. That’s it. Forever. You’re surrounded by other fruit all right, everywhere you go. Strawberries brushing against you, mandarins slinking around the office in their tight little skirts, bending over the photocopier to fix paper jams. And the lychees. Don’t get me started on the lychees.’
‘Henry,’ I say.
‘What’s a lychee?’ says Mercedes.
‘It doesn’t matter. What I’m trying to say is: can either of you comprehend the kind of discipline it takes to be married for fifteen years?’
‘Not really,’ Mercedes says. ‘I’ve never been married. I’m seven.’
‘Right, of course. Marriage, girls, is hard time, that’s what it is. Monogamy, monotony. Mangoes. They sound the same, right? That’s no coincidence.’
‘Henry,’ I say.
‘Seeing the same face every morning, e v e r y s i n g l e morning, day in, day bleeding out. If I took a sawn-off shotgun down to the 7-Eleven and waved it in Raju’s face and spent the contents of the cash drawer on crack and hookers I’d get less than fifteen years.’
‘Henry,’ I say. ‘That’s a little above their pay grade.’
Paris whispers in Mercedes’ ear. ‘She wants to know what crack is,’ says Mercedes.
‘It’s an illegal drug, sweetheart. It helps take the peaks and troughs out of the day, like Mummy’s sav blanc.’
‘Henry.’ I walk over and squat on the floor beside him. ‘Age-appropriate, remember? I have a great idea. Why don’t I take them to the park? I’m desperate to push two little girls on the swings until my arms fall off and if you don’t lend me these two, I’ll be forced to kidnap a couple off the street.’
Henry holds up his palm. The girls don’t move.
‘Janice, please,’ he says to me. Then, to the girls, ‘This is no reflection on any particular mango. Your mango is a wonderful mango. Wonderful. But that’s not the headline. The headline is: is it fair to be on an enforced diet of mangoes when the world is an enormous fruit salad?’
Mercedes and Paris squint like talent-show judges. This is an important question, they can sense it. ‘Mummy makes us cheese on toast,’ Mercedes says finally. ‘We like that. And lamb chops. And noodles. And sausages. The skinny ones, but.’
He slaps his beefy thigh and attempts to pivot out of his squat but unbalances and instead lurches to his knees, which crunch on the floorboards. ‘That’s my girls. Anyway, Mummy and I still love you very much. That’ll never change. Despite the archaic cultural construct that your mother and I find ourselves trapped in.’
All the while he’s been talking, I’ve been aware of a faint clicking and whirring; I wave my hand to deter non-existent mosquitos. Caroline and Henry live in an outer-suburban pocket of dream acre-block farmlets where every home has space for a few chickens and the occasional orchard or kitchen cow. It’s the semi-rural 4WD idyll belt and I almost open my mouth to say the crickets are loud this morning, when I feel a sneaking dread. I tell Henry to keep it G-rated until I get back.
When I get to Caroline and Henry’s bedroom at the end of the corridor, I’m faced with a scene of devastation. Henry’s suits are spread out over the unmade bed like a two-dimensional gay orgy: here a Paul Smith, there a Henry Bucks, everywhere a Zegna. The trouser-half of each and every one of them is missing its crotch and Caroline, chip off the old block, is peering over them with her reading glasses on the end of her nose and the good scissors in her hand.
She’s still in her nightie, freshly foiled hair loose and a silk kimono draped over her shoulders. She looks forlornly at her symbolic castration and sighs, just like Mum did all those years ago. ‘What a waste,’ she says, as she shakes her head.
‘Maybe not super-helpful at this point, Caroline darling,’ I say.
She shrugs. ‘These trousers failed in their primary duty, which is to contain the penis. They have only themselves to blame.’
‘Nothing’s been decided yet. People make mistakes, Caroline. Marriage is a marathon, not a sprint.’
‘Earth to cliché-girl: do you know who took these suits to the drycleaner?’ she says, as she smooths and folds the legs of a maimed Henry-surrogate and sits on the bed. ‘Who washed all these shirts? Did the ironing? All right, Toula does the ironing, but you get my point. See this tie?’ She reaches for a pale blue serpent nestling on the pillow. Crotch-butterflies flutter to the ground at her feet. ‘I bought him this tie when he got his last promotion. It was a congratulatory tie. A tie that said your wife loves you. A chastity tie. It was not a tie to preside over the shagging of some schoolteacher young enough to be his much younger sister.’
‘You’re angry, of course you are.’
‘Honestly Janice, do you live on Mars?’ she says, as she lops the head off the blue tie. ‘Here on this planet, every action has a reaction.’
I take the scissors. ‘All the same, let’s keep the collateral damage to a minimum. Please, Caroline?’
‘Well excuse me. Some of us like being married.’ She shoots me a look. ‘Are you on Henry’s side, is that it?’
I open my mouth, but I’m saved by the doorbell.
‘I’ll get it!’ she yells.
‘It’s my house too!’ yells Henry, from the lounge room. ‘That means it’s equally my front door and I will be the one who gets it.’
‘Neither of you will get it,’ I yell back at them. ‘You will each stay in your designated corners and I will get it.’
I stalk back down the hall, past where Henry is still squatting and saying god knows what to the girls, who nod back at him. I almost intervene but the bell rings again so I keep going: he’s their father, he only wants what’s best for them. Besides, they’ll need something to tell their analysts when they grow up.
When I open the door, it’s Craig and Lesley from next door. What luck.
‘Janice,’ Craig says. ‘It’s been ages. You look well.’
‘Janice,’ Lesley says. ‘Aren’t you the ministering angel? You must have arrived very early. Or did you stay over?’
In this suburb, everyone knows each other. They pop in for drinks, they pick up each other’s kids from drama class, they traipse through neighbours’ yards as shortcuts on the way somewhere. Progressive dinners. Weekends at the snow. It’s frightening. In the inner city where I live, people have the decency to ignore each other in general, and marital spats in particular. I regularly pass taggers, junkies, halfhearted trannies and any beggar who isn’t a bonafide local as though they’re invisible. It took six months of nodding in the street before I got to the stage of saying ‘morning’ to the guy from the flats who dresses like a pirate. Allowing other people room for their private proclivities is the basis of a civilised society.
I step outside and pull the door almost closed behind me. ‘Caroline and Henry are just in the middle of something,’ I say. ‘I’ll let them know you dropped by.’
Lesley and Craig exchange meaningful looks. The two of them are always shiny with health, like they’ve perpetually come from the gym and even their hair—Craig’s blond ponytail and close-trimmed beard, Lesley’s glossy black bob— is shampoo-commercial-ready. They’re both in Lycra shorts and a t-shirt (her) or singlet (him). He has the kind of chest that will happily spend all day in a singlet. She’s petite, a good foot shorter than him. Sharper, older.
‘It’s us, lovely. We heard them last night,’ says Lesley.
Craig rubs a hand over his designer stubble in a gesture chosen to simulate thoughtfulness. ‘The whole street heard them. Probably the whole valley. Sound really carries out here. It’s the shape of the hills. Amazing pitch resonance.’
Craig is a sound engineer by profession and inclination, who works from a besser-block recording studio in their backyard and routinely inserts phrases like ‘pitch resonance’ into conversation. I’ve seen him in a t-shirt that says Sound engineers do it with frequency. Since Lesley sold out of the IT firm she founded, she makes ceramics: vases and bowls stocked in gift shops and galleries all over the mountains. She has a kiln and wheel in her own studio in the backyard, the mirror image of Craig’s. She has a t-shirt that says Potters do it with a glazed expression.
‘I can’t believe he was on with Martha. I literally can’t believe it,’ says Craig.
‘She seemed so sweet on parent-teacher night,’ says Lesley.
Craig shakes his head. ‘They’re the ones you gotta watch.’
‘Caroline, the poor love. I can only imagine how she’s feeling,’ says Lesley. ‘Is there anything we can do?’
‘He’s a sly dog,’ says Craig. ‘She can’t be a day over twenty-five.’
Everyone’s fine, I tell them. Every marriage goes through ups and downs. They just need a little space. They’re resting now.
‘Is that Craig?’ Henry is behind me and before I know it, he opens the door. ‘Craig, mate. She’s gone completely psycho.’
‘Henry, mate.’ Craig grips Henry’s shoulder and flexes his arm and shoulder muscles with little pulses. ‘I hear you. I feel for you mate.’
‘You’d think after fifteen years I’d have earned a little wriggle-room, wouldn’t you, mate? The odd free pass? Wouldn’t you think that?’
‘I think Caroline has been thoroughly provoked,’ says Lesley, detaching Craig’s arm from Henry. ‘We aren’t taking sides.’
‘Of course not, of course not,’ Craig says. ‘Henry, you dog you.’
‘Is that Lesley?’ yells Caroline, and before I know it she’s standing on the other side of me, and she’s within two feet of Henry, which is the thing I’ve been trying to avoid since six o’clock last night. She opens the door even wider.
‘All those weekends I was stuck here and he was away on business? Ha bloody ha. His demanding job that kept him so busy and exhausted? Mugsy me, picking the girls up after school and hello Martha, thanks for giving Mercedes so much extra attention Martha, and driving them to ballet and swimming and making their dinner and bathing them and putting them to bed and then watching Law and Order and eating Lean Cuisine and all the while he’s at the motor inn on the highway, shagging.’
‘Don’t,’ says Henry. He sighs it out, a soft don’t, and in that word I imagine the kind of boy he was: smaller than his size, used to saying don’t in defence.
‘Don’t you say don’t to me. I’m not the one who’s been doing anything,’ says Caroline. ‘I’m the one who’s been staying home, minding my own business.’
‘Don’t say shagging,’ he says. ‘It’s not like that. We have a connection.’
‘Your genitals have been having a connection, that’s for sure,’ says Caroline.
‘Now—’ begins Lesley.
‘Girls,’ I yell behind us. ‘Back to your rooms please.’
There is a silence, a freezing I can feel from here, and all at once I remember what it’s like to be that age in almost exactly these circumstances. Mercedes and Paris will be curled up on the floor in the lounge, splitting themselves in two, trying to decide whether it’s best to know or to not-know. You can’t win: if you hear, you’ll wish you hadn’t and if you don’t, you’ll wish you had. You feel wrong and stupid whichever you choose. Right now, they’re trying to make themselves invisible, which can become a habit. It’s very hard to stop, even when you grow up.
‘Mercedes. Paris. I know you’re there. Hop to it.’
A pause. ‘We’re hungry,’ Mercedes yells back.
‘You’re stalling. I’ll make you something really yummy soon but right now, your rooms.’
‘All right,’ yells Mercedes, after a moment, ‘but whatever you make us, we don’t like it.’
We all wait until the sound of small feet recede and we hear a door being closed.
‘—That’s quite enough of that,’ continues Lesley.
‘Let’s everybody chill,’ says Craig.
‘It’s a gross violation of trust, sure,’ says Lesley. ‘But it’s not the end of the world.’
‘I know!’ Craig clicks his fingers. ‘Trust exercises. One spouse leads the other blindfolded through a strange room. Or one spouse folds their hands on their chest and drops backwards and the other saves the first one’s head from being smashed in.’
‘The girls can change schools. There are male teachers around if you look hard enough, or maybe you can ban Henry from drop-offs and pick-ups,’ says Lesley.
‘The point is to not let the blind spouse get concussion,’ Craig says. ‘Concussion doesn’t build trust.’
‘Two unsettled children dragged away from their friends and two emotional adults at risk of a brain injury,’ I say. ‘Just the ticket.’
‘Some people work at their marriage problems, rather than cutting and running,’ Lesley says, and maybe I’m paranoid but she’s looking right at me.
‘Trust is a muscle,’ says Craig.
‘I’m pretty sure it’s not,’ I say.
Lesley threads her fingers through Craig’s hand and touches her nose to his shoulder. ‘It needs exercise, he means.’
Craig hunches to kiss her forehead. ‘It’s because we work at it, Pookie.’
‘I have a wonderful therapist,’ says Lesley. ‘She really helped with my OCD. She does couples too. Not that I have direct experience, I don’t. It’s spray-painted on her door. I’ll drop in her card.’
‘That’s thoughtful,’ I say. ‘Isn’t that thoughtful, Caroline?’
‘I guess,’ she says.
‘Henry? That’s a good idea of Lesley’s, isn’t it? Talking to a professional?’ I say.
He doesn’t answer. He clasps his hands behind his back and twists from side to side, an Olympic weightlifter before the clean and jerk.
‘Henry? Counselling. It’s worth a go, isn’t it?’
‘Really, Janice?’ says Caroline. ‘You’re suggesting counselling? You? I’ll tell you one thing: Henry and I will not be taking relationship advice from you, Janice. Will we Henry?’
‘Look,’ Henry says. ‘The truth is. I have a flat.’
‘Your car’s at the mechanic’s, isn’t it?’ says Caroline ‘They’ll fix it while it’s there, take them two minutes.’
‘Not that kind of flat,’ says Henry. ‘The other kind.’
‘What other kind?’ says Caroline.
‘It’s not an affair,’ says Henry.
‘What is it then?’ says Caroline.
‘It’s love. I haven’t known how to say it until now, but I love her. Martha. I want to be with her.’ And then he says, ‘I’m leaving.’
Perhaps a relationship flashes before your eyes in the moment of its death. Flash. I see them, Caroline and Henry, the afternoon they first met outside an Engineering Department mixer, drinking beer and fighting about politics. Flash. Here they are again, years later in a crowded pub, each vaguely recognising the other and Caroline drinking too much and Henry driving her home and kissing her on the top step of Mum’s house. Here is the first time they made love in the reclined front seat of the Beemer. Here they are, sharing a pizza on a perch of unopened boxes the night they moved in to their first flat, wide-eyed, listening to the strange sounds of the suburbs, planning paint colours and herb gardens. Henry, crying at the altar. The births of the girls. Standing at the sink: him washing, her drying. Sleeping together on hot nights, the tips of their fingers touching. Flash, flash, flash.
At the front door, we are all still. None of us dares to breathe. Then Caroline’s mouth falls open and her skin yellows and shrinks. She is hollow now. The rage has gone out of her and her shell is upright only from the habit of her bones. She is watching their life together unspool before her eyes and she is thinking of her future, of the years to come without him. She is wondering how she will sleep alone every night in their big bed. Now, after two children, after almost two decades with this man at the centre of her of her life, she is no longer required.
We all stand on the threshold. No one knows what to say next.