Chika was curious as she watched David cross the floor. The Procon offices took up the 36th–38th floors of their eponymous building, overlooking the world they helped to create. She could have sat facing the city mass and thickness of the suburban sprawl with its gentle feathering towards the bay. Squinting, she imagined that she could see the beach drifting into the ocean. She paused at the floor-to-ceiling window that separated her from the elements before taking a seat in the middle of the sixteen-person conference table, with her back to the view. Raising her left eyebrow, she watched through the glass wall while her husband made his way slowly, very slowly, towards her.
Her suggestion of lunch on her way back from looking at yet another bar mitzvah venue, was meant to be breezy. After all, it had been longer than she was willing to acknowledge since they spent any time together. When he pushed lunch to coffee, then bumped coffee to a quick catch-up at the office, her rising annoyance was all too familiar. She had even told him there was nothing in particular that she had to talk about, to let him off the hook. David, however, insisted. In spite of herself, she was slightly flattered by his firmness.
Watching him through the glass, she still appreciated his good looks, barely faded since their first date. David had always cut a fine figure. Her mother used to say it all the time.
‘That David, he does cut a fine figure,’ she would say to her husband.
‘Sure thing,’ Barry would answer, ‘he’ll look great in a coffin.’
To Chika, David looked exactly like the Prince she had imagined for herself.
When they met, nineteen and second year at Melbourne Uni, Chika felt a synergy with her parents’ story that seemed fated. True, he wasn’t a thinker like her dad, but then again neither was she. Nobody was really. Nobody but her mother. And really what was there to think about? At the time, Chika didn’t know anything about family businesses, family money, families at all. All she knew was this handsome Law and Economics major seemed interested in her, and not at all -intimidated by her colourful clothing, wild drawings and dreamy beliefs.
She remembered the first introduction at her parents’ house, and the silence that welcomed him. Her mother shot her father a look and they both glanced at her. She wasn’t sure exactly what they were implying, but she felt like she had somehow hurt their feelings and she couldn’t work out how.
‘So, you are a lawyer?’ her mother had tried.
‘For now. Dad wants me in the family business first.’
‘But you . . . ?’
‘It’ll be a couple of years. Then I’ll do other stuff. Travel, most likely.’
‘Searching for . . . ?’ Tara had the hint of a smile creeping along the corners of her eyes.
‘No. Nothing. I’m . . . I’m not interested in anything . . .
Her mother looked at her father again. The smile retreated.
Barry put his hand on Tara’s arm. Clearing his throat, he said, ‘Anyway. Good you’re here, David. Sit. Let’s sit.’
Chika pushed a stack of notebooks with red-taped spines towards a bunch of loose papers further along the worn leather couch. Tara’s work in progress. She took a seat and watched as David turned his cup around, so the chip was not facing him. As Tara poured them tea and served honey cake, Chika and David took turns describing their happy meeting at a friend’s party, how they liked the same music, how they enjoyed the same neighbourhoods.
‘Art?’ Tara didn’t look up.
‘Sorry?’ David’s soft coughs filled the gaps.
‘Art. You like art? You’ve seen Chika’s, no doubt?’
‘No. Yes, well, yes of course. I mean, I don’t know a lot about the arts, but I like it.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I’m not a big reader, I guess . . .’
As the air drained from the room, Tara looked again at Barry, this time the look was pretty clear.
‘Anyway not everyone has to know about the arts. There are things other than drawings, books, music and theatre. David is great at business. That’s his thing.’ Chika was pretty sure she sounded upbeat.
Tara got up and started fussing in the kitchen, leaving Barry to learn more about David’s thing.
Chika sighed with exasperation as she saw the familiar signs of David planning to take a really long time to get to the conference room. She should have insisted they met at a restaurant. She pulled her T-shirt out from a fold in her stomach with dismay. How long had that extra skin been there? She wondered when she stopped carrying a book to read with her. She played with her phone, flicking through photo after photo of the kids.
There he was, stopping at one random desk, then another, pretending that they were all comrades, that he didn’t have a fancy corner office with doors that locked and blinds that kept out prying eyes and a salary that would make them blush.
These past months, with Tara’s sudden questionable Jewishness and general oddness, had been hard on them all. She closed and opened her eyes, making David’s meandering progress appear like a stop motion film.
‘Sorry.’ David’s voice was in a fluster as if he had been out for a run. ‘Crazy day. Been rushing around. Don’t have heaps of time.’
She wondered if he knew that the walls to this room were glass. ‘No problem.’ She raised her face towards him and accepted the light peck on the lips. ‘So . . . ?’
‘So. Thanks for coming here.’ He sat down opposite her.
‘Okay . . .’
‘Good.’ She watched him looking at the view and wondered why he asked her here. Sometimes she found it hard to remember anything they had in common. While his eyes were focused somewhere along the horizon, she moved her hands towards the middle of the wide table. She couldn’t reach him anyway. As his eyes moved, her hands retracted.
‘What’s up David? You’re hardly ever home.’ She caught the whine just in time. ‘The kids miss you.’
Chika’s body slumped, in exactly the way that made David berate their son when he caught him doing it. Feeling like she was fading away, she bit the inside of her cheek. An irritating habit that she only just started, probably after seeing Rosie doing it constantly. The sting of breaking skin and the taste of blood, made her focus intently across the table. Still, David looked out the window.
‘So, David?’ She waited a moment. ‘Is this about my parents’ place?’ She said it more to fill the space. ‘You guys want to develop there? I’m sure I heard it was a suburb to watch.’
He cocked his head to the side, focusing on the top right corner of the room as if a seer were there. He grabbed one of the branded notepads scattered on the table, glancing at her as he scribbled. Chika turned to check the view outside the building.
‘Not bad, Chiks. I’ll get some figures run and get back to you, okay? Has Tara said she’s thinking about selling?’
‘No, but I can bring it up.’
Again, nothing. Was that it? Should she leave now? David rolled up the sleeves of his shirt by folding the cuff carefully over and over and over again until it was just under his elbow, then he pulled at it to make sure it was straight. Chika picked at imaginary fluff on her silk pants and scraped at some real dried green flakes with her nail.
‘Your hair is looking nice.’
‘I stopped straightening it.’
‘Look, David, I know things have been hard. I know—’
‘No, Chiks, you’ve been through a lot. Your dad, now your mum . . .’
‘And that whole Jewish not Jewish thing . . .’
‘Yes, that too.’ No smile. ‘Chika, it’s been hard . . . I’ve wanted to say . . . It’s been a really tough time. And I’ve been at work, then . . .’ David coughed softly three times. Chika immediately recognised it as his habit when under stress, or nervous, or just not wanting to be there.
She took a deep breath in, held it for a moment, then silently released it. She thought about asking him to tell her more. What happened to the endless nights of talking about their feelings, their dreams, their future? She opened her mouth, but instead took another deep breath. Fuck it, she thought.
‘So, you want me to say I’m sorry?’ she offered instead, silently scolding herself.
David raised his eyes to her. Finally, she had his attention. She congratulated herself for meeting his gaze.
‘No, it’s not that, Chika. I’m sorry.’ His eyes seemed to turn from blue to grey in front of her.
Chika smiled. She couldn’t help it. Could they weave back together, ever so gently, ever so slowly? ‘Let’s have a family dinner tonight? I’ll make sure the kids’ll be home. We can get takeaway; we can watch some trash TV.’
‘No, Chika, no, you’re not following.’
Outside the conference room people were moving around, talking over partitions, someone was coming in with a very large white architectural model and a small table was being cleared to make room for it.
‘Chiks, I’ve met someone.’
She thought that she would fall over and out of the chair. She watched his mouth, still moving, but she couldn’t hear anything. Shit, she actually couldn’t hear anything. She waved her hands in front of her face. It made her feel nauseated.
He seemed to be saying something that he thought she should be listening to, but didn’t he know that she couldn’t hear? She had to tell him that she had gone deaf and that she thought
he had said something totally ridiculous.
‘Chika, did you hear what I just said?’
She tried to concentrate. A thousand thoughts, a thousand questions. Chika knew she wanted to ask for more, but couldn’t remember how. David looked stupid to her. Stupid. Really stupid. She felt the urge to cry building up. She could feel the tears welling, ready, waiting. Squeezing her eyes shut, the blackness was undercut by flying shards of yellow and red. She squeezed harder. No tears. She tried to swallow but her tongue felt oversized, making it impossible.
On the other side of the glass wall, about half a dozen people gathered around the table to hear about the model. Someone was taking pictures of it on a phone. Someone else was taking notes. She wondered where this piece of shit was going. What beautiful history was being ripped down for this? A woman knocked on the glass door, waving a phone. David waved her away. He cleared his throat and did his three coughs. Said something. Waited. Finally, he walked out. Chika was left sitting there alone.
She didn’t know how long she sat there. The sky behind her turned amber and the woman who had the phone came in to say something. Was that her? Was she the one he met? Chika said no to something and remained seated. She saw the model get taken away and people move around from desk to desk, then out of the office. She took her phone out to text the kids to see if they were home for dinner tonight. When both messaged back no, she pulled herself off the chair and out of the building.
This is an extract from a novel in progress, which was developed during the Faber Writing Academy Writing A Novel course 2017.
Six months before her son’s bar mitzvah, Chika Frank discovers she is not Jewish. Letters she unearths, from a stranger to her elderly mother, cast doubt on everything she thought she knew about herself. The fallout shatters Chika’s marriage, causing her sixteen-year-old daughter to flee. When the letter writer’s daughter appears on the scene, the mystery deepens. Chika’s mother knows the answers, but a lifetime of keeping secrets and her withering mental state make finding the truth a seemingly impossible task. Chika must decide which secrets are worth digging up and which can be let go.
Noè Harsel has a diverse work experience from exhibition designer to university lecturer to communications and fundraising professional. Having always written for work, and with a few short stories and articles published, Noè has decided that now is the time to go the whole way—a novel.