It happens sometimes that you accidentally star in a little public performance of your very own comedy, tragedy or melodrama. You’re running for your morning bus, briefcase swinging jauntily, when you trip and tumble playground-style to the footpath. You’re trapped in the heavy breathing silence of a crowded lift when your lover says something infuriating (‘What did you just say?’), or your child asks a rather delicate question, or your mother calls on your mobile to shriek dire warnings. You’re shuffling past a row of knees in the cinema, caught in the spotlight of the previews, when you tip your popcorn into a stranger’s lap. You’re having one of those days of accumulating misery when you argue violently with someone in a position of power: a bank teller, a dry-cleaner, a three year old.
You can either ignore your silently grinning spectators, glower at them or shrug humorously. If you’re a flamboyant type, you might like to give them a little bow. It doesn’t really matter much what you do, because you have no control over your role in the amusing little anecdotes they’re already busy composing; if it suits them, they will rob you of even more dignity.
It happened to three women one cold June night in Sydney. (Actually, it had been happening to them all their lives, but this time their performance was especially spectacular.)
The setting was a busy seafood restaurant endorsed as ‘full of surprises’ by Sydney’s Good Food Guide and their audience excluded only those suffering from excessive good manners. Everyone else witnessed the entire show with complete, bug-eyed enjoyment.
Within hours this little incident was being described and re-enacted for the pleasure of babysitters, flatmates and partners waiting at home. By early the next day at least a dozen versions of the story were doing the rounds of office cubicles and coffee shops, pubs and preschools. Some were funny, others disapproving; many were censored, a few were spiced up.
Of course, not one was the same.
The Birthday Brawl
Last night? Eventful.
No mate, not that sort of eventful. The blind date was a disaster.
No, it wasn’t too soon after Sarah. I told you, I’m ready to get back out there. The problem was her voice. It was like trying to hear someone on a bad line.
I’m not being picky, I couldn’t hear the woman! There’s a limit to how many times you can ask someone to repeat themselves before it gets bloody awkward. All night I was leaning halfway across the table, squinting my ears, making wild guesses as to what she was whispering. At one point I chuckled appreciably at what I thought was a punchline and the poor girl looked horrified.
She could be really nice. She just needs someone with better ears.
Preferably bionic ones.
But forget about the date. I’m sure she has. Actually, I’m sure she hasn’t because, as I say, it was . . . eventful.
The restaurant was jam-packed and we had a table right next to three women. At first I didn’t even register them because I was busy perfecting my lip-reading skills. The first time I even looked over was when one girl got her handbag strap tangled around my chair.
Yep. Nice looking. Although I did have a preference for – but I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, at first these three girls were obviously having a great time, roaring with laughter, getting louder and louder. Each time they laughed, my date and I smiled sadly at each other.
About eleven o’clock we cheered up because the end was in sight. We got the dessert menu and she used sign language to suggest we share the blueberry cheesecake. Obviously I didn’t completely ruin her night by mentioning my missing sweet tooth. What is it with women and sharing desserts? It makes them so happy.
But we never got to order because that’s when the action started. The lights in the restaurant went off and three waitresses appeared, each of them lugging these three huge bloody . . .
. . . BIRTHDAY CAKES if you don’t mind!
And I said to Thomas, well for heaven’s sakes! THREE cakes! One for each girl! All ablaze with those noisy sparklers, which I personally think are a fire hazard. So then they sang happy birthday – three times! Thomas thought it was ridiculous. Each happy birthday got louder and more boisterous and by the end of it everyone in the restaurant was singing.
Except for Thomas of course. He’d been upset about the noise from the three girls all night. He even complained to the waitress! They seemed like nice, high-spirited young people to me. Well, they did in the beginning anyway. The pregnant one smiled very nicely at me when she went to the ladies.
They all had very generous portions of their cake! Not dieting obviously! And they all helped themselves to spoonfuls of each other’s.That was nice, I thought.
Well, I kept a little eye on them. They had me intrigued for some reason. I noticed that after their cake they each took a turn reading something out loud. They looked like letters to me. Well, I don’t know what in the world those letters were about but it was only a few seconds later that the yelling started!
Goodness me! What a terrible tiff! Everyone was staring. Thomas was appalled.
One girl scraped back her chair and stood right up and I’ve never seen anyone so angry! Her face was all blotchy bright red and she was shaking a fork and screaming – yes, screaming.
Well, I don’t know if I can say this part.
Well, all right. Come close and I’ll whisper it to you. She was screaming, ‘You have both . . .
. . . FUCKING RUINED MY LIFE!’
And I think to myself, what the fuck is going on here?
I’d just been telling Sam that I was going to score a massive tip from table six because they were all having such a good time and they were all pretty drunk.
Even the pregnant girl had two glasses of champagne, which is pretty bad, isn’t it? Don’t you have a retarded baby or something if you drink while you’re pregnant?
The thing I can’t believe is how she could do that to her own sister. I mean I get pretty mad with my sister but this – wow! Her own triplet even!
Did I tell you they were triplets?
They were all out together celebrating their thirty-fourth birthdays. I’d never met triplets before and they were pretty friendly, so I was asking them questions about what it was like. The two blonde ones were identical. It freaked me out! I kept staring at them once I knew. It was like spot the difference. Weird.
One of them said it was fantastic being a triplet. She just loved it! The other one said it was terrible. It made her feel like a mutant or something. And the third one said it was just nothing, no big deal, no different from being in any other family.
And then they all started arguing about what it was like to be a triplet. But in a friendly, funny way.
That’s why I couldn’t believe it when I heard them start fighting. Like really fighting, as if they absolutely despised each other. It was sort of embarrassing, you know? Like they were doing something really private in public.
Sam told me to distract them with their coffees. So I was trying to keep my face normal, walking up to their table, and that’s when it happened.
I tell you. It gave me such a shock the coffees were wobbling in my hands.
You know those two old fossils that come every second Thursday? You know, the fat woman always has the crème brûlée? She’s got the skinny husband with something right up his arse. Anyway, my hand was shaking so much I sent cappuccino froth flying over the guy’s shiny head!
OK, OK! Gimme a break, I’m trying to set the scene for you!
One of the girls stood up at the table and she’s yelling at her sisters, right? And all the time she’s yelling she’s sort of poking at the air with her fondue fork.
They shared the special fondue for their entree, you see. Actually, now I think about it, it was my fault the fondue fork was still there on the table.
Wow. I hope they can’t sue me or anything. Ha.
So this girl, she’s got the fork and she’s yelling like a complete maniac. And then she throws the fondue fork at her sister. Can you believe it?
And the fork gets stuck in the pregnant one’s stomach!
She’s just sitting there looking down at her big belly and there’s this fork sticking right out of her. It looked just completely bizarre.
The girl who threw it is standing there with her hand sort of held out, frozen, in midair. Like as if she was trying to stop a glass from falling or something and then realised it was too late.
And then – get this – she faints.
No, not the pregnant one. The one who threw the fork.
She just sort of crumples and falls – really heavy – onto the floor and on the way down she bangs her chin, like bang, really hard, on the edge of the chair.
So she’s lying on the floor, completely out of it.
The pregnant one, she’s just sitting there looking at the fork sticking out of her stomach and she’s not making a sound. She’s just staring at it in this sort of dreamy way and then she touches her stomach with her finger and holds it up and it’s covered in blood! Totally gross!
The restaurant is silent; like, so silent it’s loud. Everybody is just sitting there, looking at them.
So the third sister, she sort of sighs and shakes her head as if it’s no big deal and leans down under the table and picks up her handbag and pulls out . . .
. . . her mobile and rang an ambulance for the two of them.
Then she rang me and I met them at the hospital. I mean, really!
What a complete debacle.
They’re over thirty now, for heaven’s sakes and they’re behaving like children. Throwing things at each other in public places! It’s disgraceful. And on their birthday of all days!
I think they all need to see a really sensible psychiatrist. I really do.
Remember that restaurant in the city, when they were little?
Remember? The manager asked us to leave after Lyn threw her glass of lemonade at Catriona. What a fiasco! I’ve never been so humiliated in my life. Not to mention the perfectly good bottle of shiraz we left behind. Cat needed four stitches that day.
I blame you, Frank.
No. It makes perfect sense.
Well, if you like, you can share the blame equally with Christine. Christine, Frank, was the name of the woman who broke up our marriage. Now that is a perfect indication of how much your mind was involved in that sordid little incident.
I have not strayed from the point, Frank! Our broken marriage clearly damaged our daughters. Today’s incident is not normal! Even for multiples!
I was still with the accountant when I got the call. I was speechless! I could hardly say, ‘Oh please excuse me, Nigel, my daughter just broke her jaw after fainting from the shock of throwing a fondue fork at her pregnant sister!’
You should have seen them when I arrived here at the hospital. They were giggling! Treating the whole thing as a hilarious joke. They make me so cross.
I just don’t understand them at all.
Don’t pretend you understand them any better than me, Frank. You don’t talk to them. You flirt with them.
They all smelled unpleasantly of garlic too. They had some sort of seafood fondue for their entree, apparently. I mean, really, what a strange choice! It doesn’t sound edible.
I think they have a drinking problem too.
I fail to see the humour in this, Frank. The baby could have been hurt. It could have died.
Our daughter could have murdered our grandchild!
Dear God, we could have been on the front page of the Daily Telegraph.
No, I do not think I’m being the slightest bit dramatic.
Well yes, obviously, that’s what I’d like to know too. It was the very first thing I said to them when I got here.
‘What in the world started it?’
You could argue that it started thirty-four years ago when twenty-year-old Frank Kettle, a tall, fair, hyperactive ex-altar boy, fell madly in lust with Maxine Leonard, a long-legged languid redhead just a few days short of her nineteenth birthday.
He was pumping with fresh testosterone. She knew better but did it anyway. In the back seat of Frank’s dad’s Holden. Twice. The first time involved a lot of head-bumping and grunting and breathless shifts of position, while Johnny O’Keefe bellowed at them from the car radio. The second time was slower and gentler and rather nice. Elvis soothingly suggested they love him tender. In each case, however, the terrible result was the same. One of Frank’s exuberant little sperm cells slammed head-on with one of Maxine’s rather less thrilled eggs, interrupting what should have been an uneventful journey to nonexistence.
Over the following days, while Maxine was chastely dating more suitable boys and Frank was pursuing a curvy brunette, two freshly fertilised eggs were busily bumping their way along Maxine’s fallopian tubes towards the haven of her horrified young uterus.
At the exact moment Maxine allowed the very suitable Charlie Edwards to hold back her long red hair while she puffed out her cheeks and blew out nineteen candles, one egg fizzed with so much friction it split right in two. The other single egg burrowed its way comfortably in between the two new identical eggs.
Guests at Maxine’s birthday party thought they’d never seen her look so beautiful – slender, glowing, almost incandescent! Who could have guessed she’d been impregnated with some Catholic boy’s triplets?
Frank and Maxine were married, of course. In their wedding photos they both have the blank-eyed, sedated look of recent trauma victims.
Seven months later, their triplet daughters came kicking and howling into the world. Maxine, who had never even held a baby before, was presented with three; it was the most despair-filled moment of her young life.
Well, that would be Gemma’s preference for how it started. Cat would argue that if she was going to start with their conception, then why not go back through their entire family tree? Why not go back to the apes? Why not start with the Big Bang? I guess I did really, Gemma would chortle – Mum and Dad’s big bang. Oh funny, Cat would say. Let’s look at it logically, Lyn would interrupt. Quite clearly, it started the night of the spaghetti.
And Lyn, quite naturally, would be right.
It was a Wednesday night six weeks before Christmas. A nothing sort of night. An unassuming mid-week night that should have vanished from their memories by Friday. ‘What did we do Wednesday?’ ‘I don’t know. Watch TV?’
That’s what they were doing. They were eating spaghetti and drinking red wine in front of the television. Cat was sitting cross-legged on the floor, with her back up against the sofa, her plate on her lap. Her husband Dan was sitting on the edge of the sofa, hunched over his dinner on the coffee table. It was the way they always ate dinner.
Dan had cooked the spaghetti, so it was hearty and bland. Cat was the more accomplished cook. Dan’s approach to cooking was somehow too functional. He stirred his ingredients as though he was mixing concrete, one arm wrapped around the bowl, the other stirring the gluggy mix so vigorously you could see his biceps working. ‘So what? Gets the job done.’
That Wednesday night Cat was feeling no specific emotion; not especially happy, not especially sad. It was strange afterwards, remembering how she sat there, shovelling Dan’s pasta into her mouth, so foolishly trusting of her life. She wanted to yell back at herself through time, ‘Concentrate!’
They were watching a show called Med School. It was a soapie about a group of very beautiful young medical students with shiny white teeth and complex love lives. Each episode featured a lot of blood and sex and anguish.
Cat and Dan shared a mild addiction to Med School. Whenever the plot took a new twist, they responded with loud enthusiasm, yelling at the television like children watching a pantomime: ‘Bastard!’‘Dump him!’ ‘It’s the wrong medication!’
This week Ellie (blonde, cutesy, cropped T-shirts) was in a state. She didn’t know whether to tell her boyfriend Pete (dark, brooding, abnormal abs) about her drunken infidelity with a guest-starring troublemaker.
‘Tell him, Ellie!’ said Cat to the television. ‘Pete will forgive you. He’ll understand!’
The ad break came on and a manic man in a yellow jacket bounced around a department store pointing an incredulous finger at the Christmas specials.
‘I booked that health and beauty thing today,’ said Cat, using Dan’s knee as a lever to help her reach over him for the pepper. ‘The woman had one of those gooey spiritual voices. I felt like I was getting a massage just making a booking.’
For Christmas she was giving her sisters (and herself) a weekend away at a health retreat in the Blue Mountains. The three of them would share an ‘exquisite experience’ of ‘indulgent pampering’. They would be wrapped in seaweed, dunked in mud and slathered in vitamin-enriched creams. It would be extremely amusing.
She was pleased with herself for thinking of it. ‘What a clever idea!’ everyone would say on Christmas Day. Lyn definitely needed the stress relief. Gemma didn’t need it but she’d be right into pretending that she did. Cat herself wasn’t especially stressed either, but perhaps she was, because she wasn’t pregnant and she’d been off the pill now for nearly a year. ‘Don’t get stressed about it,’ everybody said wisely, as if they were the first to pass on that hot little tip. Apparently the moment your ovaries noticed you were worried about becoming pregnant, they refused to cooperate. Oh well, if you’re going to get all huffy about it, we’ll just close on down.
A health insurance ad came on the television and Dan winced. ‘I hate this ad.’
‘It’s effective. You watch it more closely than any other ad on television.’
He closed his eyes and averted his head. ‘OK. I’m not looking, I’m not looking. Oh God. I can still hear that woman’s grating voice.’
Cat picked up the remote and turned up the volume. ‘Aaaagh!’ He opened his eyes and grabbed the remote from her.
He was behaving perfectly normally. She remembered that afterwards and it made it worse, somehow. Every moment he behaved normally was part of the betrayal.
‘Shh. It’s back on.’
Ellie’s betrayed boyfriend Pete appeared on the screen, flexing his freakish abs. Ellie gave the TV audience guilty looks.
‘Tell him,’ Cat told her. ‘I’d want to know. I couldn’t stand not to know the truth. Better to tell him, Ellie.’
‘You think so?’ said Dan. ‘Yeah. Don’t you?’
‘I don’t know.’
There were no bells jangling a warning in Cat’s head. Not a single chime. She had put down her wineglass on the coffee table and was feeling a pimple that had just that very moment appeared on her chin, undoubtedly a malevolent herald of her forthcoming period. Each month it appeared like an official stamp on her chin. There will be no baby for this woman this month. Nope. Sorry, try again! Cat had begun to cackle bitterly, throwing back her head witch-like, as soon as the first treacherous spots of blood appeared. It was such a joke, such a crushing anticlimax, after all those years of anxiously ensuring she didn’t have a baby, after all those months of ‘Are we ready to make this momentous change in our lives? I think we are, don’t you? Ooh, maybe we should have one more month of freedom!’
Don’t think about it, she told herself. Don’t think about it. ‘Cat,’ said Dan.
‘I need to tell you something.’
She snorted at his ponderous tone, pleased to be distracted from her pimple. She thought he was sending up the show. ‘Oh my God!’ she said and hummed the Med School soundtrack that helpfully warned viewers when something dramatic and awful was about to happen. ‘What? Have you done an Ellie? Have you been unfaithful to me?’
He looked as though he was going to be sick, and he wasn’t that great an actor.
Cat put down her fork. ‘This is a joke, right? You’re saying you’ve slept with someone else?’
‘Yes.’ Now his mouth was doing something strange. He looked like a guilty little boy caught doing something disgusting. She picked up the remote and turned off the television. Her heart was thumping with fear but also a strangely urgent desire, a desire to know. It was the sick feeling of excited resistance at the very top of the rollercoaster – I don’t want to go hurtling over that precipice but I do, I do!
‘When?’ She still didn’t really believe it. She was half laughing. ‘Years ago, do you mean? When we first started going out? You don’t mean recently?’
‘About a month ago.’
‘It didn’t mean anything.’ He looked down at his plate and picked up a mushroom with his fingers. Halfway to his lips, he dropped it and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth.
‘Would you just start from the beginning please? When?’
‘What night? Where was I?’ She fumbled through her mind for events over the last few weeks. ‘What night?’
It seemed that on a Tuesday night, three weeks before, at drinks after squash, he had met a girl. She had come on to him and he had been flattered because she was, well, quite good looking. He had been a bit drunk and so he had gone back to her place and one thing had led to another. It didn’t mean anything, obviously. He didn’t know why he had done such a stupid, stupid thing. Maybe all the stress lately with work, and you know, the baby thing. Obviously it would never happen again and he was very, very, very sorry and he loved her so much and, God, it was such a relief to have this out in the open!
It was almost as though something interesting and unusual had happened to him and he’d forgotten to tell Cat about it until now. She asked him questions and he answered them. ‘Where did she live?’‘How did you get home?’
He finished his story and Cat stared stupidly at him, waiting for it to hurt. All her muscles were tensed tight in anticipation of pain. It was like giving blood and waiting for the smiling doctor to find her vein.
‘What was her name?’ she said. His eyes slid away. ‘Angela.’
Finally. An exquisite twist of her heart because this girl actually had a name and Dan knew her name.
She gazed at her dinner congealing on her plate and she could see every snake-like strand of spaghetti in nauseous definition. The lens of a telescope had been clicked and her previously blurry world was now in sharp-edged focus.
She stared with new eyes at their living room. Casually angled cushions on the lounge, bright wacky rug on polished floorboards. The bookshelf, lined with photos, each one carefully selected and framed as evidence of their happy, active lives. Look! We’re so loving and cosmopolitan, so fit and humorous! Here we are smiling and hugging in our ski gear! Here we are having a laugh before we go scuba diving! We party with our friends! We pull ironic faces at the camera!
She looked back at Dan. He was quite a good-looking man, her husband. It used to worry her in a pleasurable, not-really-worried way.
He’s been unfaithful to me, she thought, trying it out. It was bizarre. Surreal. Part of her wanted to switch the television back on and pretend it had never happened. I have to iron my skirt for tomorrow, she thought. I should do my Christmas list.
‘It was nothing,’ he said. ‘It was just a stupid one-night stand.’
‘Don’t call it that!’
‘This is all so tacky.’
He looked at her beseechingly. A speck of tomato sauce quivered beneath his nose.
‘You’ve got food on your face,’ she said savagely. His guilt was inflating her, making her powerful with righteousness. He was the criminal and she was the cop. The bad cop. The one who grabbed the criminal’s shirt front and slammed him up against the wall.
She said, ‘Why are you telling me this now? Is it just to make you feel better?’
‘I don’t know. I kept changing my mind. And then you said you’d want to know the truth.’
‘I was talking to Ellie! I was watching television! I was eating dinner!’
‘So you didn’t mean it?’
‘For God’s sake. It’s too late now.’
They sat in silence for a few seconds and suddenly she wanted to weep like a five year old in the playground because Dan was meant to be her friend, her special friend.
‘But why?’ Her voice cracked. ‘Why did you do it? I don’t understand why you would do that.’
‘It didn’t mean anything. It really didn’t mean anything.’ Had his friends told him to say that? ‘Tell her it didn’t mean anything, mate. That’s all they want to hear.’
If she had been on Med School, one single tear would have been trickling so slowly, so heart-breakingly down her cheek. Instead, she was making strange wheezy sounds as if she’d been running.
‘Please don’t be upset. Cat. Babe.’
‘Don’t be upset!’
Dan placed his palm tentatively against her arm. She pushed it violently away. ‘Don’t you touch me!’
They looked at each other in horror. Dan’s face was pasty white. Cat was trembling with the sudden chasm-opening revelation that he must have touched this woman she’d never seen. Properly touched her. He must have kissed her. All the tiny, trivial details of sex.
‘Did you take her bra off?’
‘I mean, obviously her bra came off. I just want to know if she took it off, or you did? Did you reach your hand up her back while you were kissing, and undo it? Have any difficulty? Was it a tricky one? Those tricky ones are bad, aren’t they? Been a while since you’ve had to worry about that. How’d you go? Breathe a sigh of relief once you’d got it undone?’
‘Please stop it.’
‘I will not stop it.’
‘I took her bra off, OK! But it was nothing. I was drunk. It was nothing like with us. It didn’t –’
‘It didn’t mean anything. Yes, I know. What meaningless position did you choose?’
‘Did she have an orgasm?’
‘Oh darling. Don’t worry. I’m sure she did. Those little techniques of yours are so reliable. I’m sure she was very appreciative.’
‘Cat, I’m begging you to stop.’ There was a tremor in his voice.
She wiped sweat from her forehead. It was too hot.
She felt ugly. In fact she was ugly. She put her hand to her chin and felt the pimple. Make-up! She needed make-up. She needed make-up, wardrobe, a hair stylist and an airconditioned set. Then she’d feel clean, beautiful waves of grief like the stars of Med School.
She got to her feet and picked up both their plates.
The back of her throat itched unbearably. Hay fever. Right now, of all times. She put the plates back down on the coffee table and sneezed four times. Each time she closed her eyes to sneeze, an image of a sliding bra strap exploded in her mind.
Dan went into the kitchen and came back with the box of tissues.
‘Don’t look at me,’ she said.
‘What?’ He held out the tissues.
‘Just don’t look at me.’
That was when she picked up one of the plates of spaghetti and threw it straight against the wall.
From: Gemma To: Lyn; Cat Subject: Cat
LYN! WARNING, WARNING! DANGER, DANGER! I just spoke to Cat and she is in a VERY, VERY bad mood. I would not recommend ringing her about minding Maddie for another 24 hours at least.
From: Cat To: Gemma Subject: ME
Warning, warning, if you’re going to send emails about my bad mood at least make sure I don’t get them. That could really put me in a bad mood.
From: Lyn To: Gemma Subject: Cat
G. Need to be careful about hitting ‘reply all’ instead of ‘reply to author’ on old emails. Set up address book!! No doubt Cat v. impressed. Kara minding Maddie so no problem. L.
From: Gemma To: Lyn; Cat Subject: Kara
I don’t know how to set up an address book but thank you for the thought. I don’t mean to alarm you but have you heard of SHAKING BABY SYNDROME? I think leaving Maddie with Kara could be very dangerous. Once I saw her shaking a box of cornflakes FURIOUSLY. She is a teenager and teenagers have problems with their hormones that cause them to be just a little insane. Can’t you ask Cat, once she has finished her bad mood? Or else I could cancel my date with the luscious locksmith. I am prepared to do that to save Maddie’s life. Let me know.
Cat wondered whether her face looked different. It felt different, as if it was bruised and swollen. Both her eyes felt like they’d been punched. In fact, her whole body seemed strangely fragile. She’d been holding herself stiffly all day, as if she was sunburned.
It was surprising, really, how much this hurt and how consistently it hurt. All day at work she kept thinking that she ought to get a painkiller and then remembering that she wasn’t actually in physical pain.
She hadn’t slept much last night.
‘I’ll sleep on the sofa bed,’ Dan had announced, looking heroic and pale.
‘No, you won’t,’ said Cat, refusing to give him the satisfaction. But when they got into bed and she lay there looking at the ceiling and listened to Dan’s breathing starting to slow – he was actually going to sleep – she snapped back on the light and said,
He went, clutching his pillow sleepily to his stomach. Cat lay in bed and imagined her husband having sex with another woman. She was right there, under the covers with them, watching his hands, her hands, his mouth, her mouth.
She couldn’t stop. She didn’t want to stop. It was necessary to imagine every excruciating second-by-second detail.
In the middle of the night she woke Dan up to ask him what colour underwear the girl had been wearing.
‘I don’t remember,’ he said blearily.
‘You do! You do!’ She kept insisting until finally he said he thought it might have been black, at which point she burst into tears.
Now Cat looked at her colleagues in the 4.30pm operations meeting and wondered if this thing, this vile humiliating thing, had ever happened to them.
Sales Director Rob Spencer was in his favourite position by the whiteboard, enthusiastically scribbling flamboyant arrows and boxes. ‘Folks! I think this makes my point very clear!’
Rob Spencer. Well, that was a joke. For the last five years or so Rob had been having an affair with gorgeous Johanna from Accounts. It was the company’s favourite secret. Telling new staff the Rob/Johanna legend was part of the induction procedure at Hollingdale Chocolates. The only people who didn’t know, presumably, were Rob’s wife and Johanna’s husband.
Everyone stared with enjoyable pity at the two unfortunate spouses when they made their appearance each year at the annual Christmas party.
It occurred to Cat that she now had something in common with Rob Spencer’s pathetic wife. She was the faceless wife in Angela’s amusing story of a one-night stand with a married man. ‘Well I feel sorry for the wife . . .’ ‘The wife isn’t Angela’s responsibility . . .’ ‘Who cares about the wife, just give us the gory details, Ange!’
She swallowed hard and looked down at Rob’s analysis for a quick way to humiliate him.
Colourful graphs. Nifty little spreadsheet. All done by his minions of course.
‘Rob,’ she said.
Ten heads turned in relieved unison to face her. ‘Catriona!’ Rob spun from the whiteboard, teeth flashing against solarium-yellow tan. ‘Always value your feedback!’
‘I just wondered where those figures came from,’ she said.
‘I do believe the marvellous Margie did the number crunching for me,’ Rob tapped his figures seductively, as if Margie had given him a rather marvellous blow job at the same time.
‘Yes, but what figures did you give Margie to crunch?’ asked Cat.
‘Ah, let’s see,’ Rob began shuffling vaguely through his paperwork.
She savoured the moment before moving in for the kill. ‘Looking at the marketing budget here, it seems you’ve given her last financial year’s figures. So your analysis, while fascinating, is also, hmmm, how can I put it best . . . irrelevant?’
Too bitchy. Male egos were so tender, just like their balls.
She would pay for that one.
‘Crash and burn, Rob, mate!’ Joe from Production thumped his fist on the table.
Rob held up both hands in boyish surrender. ‘Team! It seems the Cat has caught me out once again with her razor-sharp eye for errors!’
He looked at his watch. ‘It’s nearly five on a Friday afternoon! People, what are we still doing here? Who wants to join me in drowning my humiliation at Alberts? Catriona? Can I shout my nemesis a drink?’
His eyes were opaque little marbles.
Cat smiled tightly. ‘I’ll hold you to it another time.’
She bundled up her files and left the room, feeling quite ill with inappropriate-for-the-workplace hatred for Rob Spencer.
From: Gemma To: Cat Subject: Drink
Would you like to have a drink? We can talk about the bad mood you’re not in. Love, Gemma.
PS. Essential that you back me up on Kara issue! PPS. Do you owe me any money by any chance? I don’t seem to have any.
Cat sat in a dimly lit corner of the pub with three beers in front of her and waited for her sisters.
She wasn’t going to tell them. She and Dan needed time to work it out for themselves. It wasn’t necessary to share every single detail of her marriage. It was weird and triplet-dependent. ‘You tell those two everything!’ Dan always said and he didn’t know the half of it.
If she told them, they would keep interrupting the story with cries of outrage. Gemma would rush off to buy supplies of ice-cream and champagne. Lyn would be on her mobile ringing friends for referrals for good marriage counsellors. They would inundate her with advice. They would argue passionately with each other over what she should and shouldn’t do.
They would care too much and that would make it real.
She took a gulp of her beer and bared her teeth at a man who was making hopeful gestures at the two stools she had saved.
‘Just checking!’ he said, hands up, looking hurt.
She definitely wasn’t telling her sisters. Look what happened when she went off the pill. Her cycle became public property; every month, they’d call to cheerily ask whether her period had arrived yet.
They had both stopped calling now but only after she’d said to Gemma that yes, it had come and yes, she probably was infertile and now was she satisfied? Gemma had cried, of course. Then Cat had felt sick with guilt as well as period pain.
‘Are these seats . . . ?’
‘Yes, they are seats but no, they are not free.’
‘What’s her problem?’
‘Ignore her. Bitch.’
Two girls in matching Barbie-doll business suits tottered off disapprovingly on their high heels, while Cat examined her knuckles and imagined jumping up and punching their lip-sticked mouths.
She wondered what that girl looked like.
She was probably short and curvy like those two girls who had now stopped to giggle and gurgle up at a group of, no doubt married, men.
Cat hated curvaceous little women. Feminine, doll-like women who tilted up their sweet faces to Cat as though she was some sort of towering, lumbering giant.
Her sisters understood. Tall women understood.
But she didn’t want the humiliation of their understanding. In fact, for some reason the thought of their intensely sympathetic faces made her furious. It was their fault.
She searched her mind for a rational reason for blaming them.
Of course it was their fault she’d ever met Dan in the first place.
Melbourne Cup Day over ten years ago. Twenty-one and delightfully drunk on champagne, back when you were still allowed to call cheap sparkling wine ‘champagne’. Betting spectacular amounts of money on every race. Laughing like drains, as their grandmother said. Making a complete spectacle of themselves, as their mother said.
They accosted every boy who walked by their table. Gemma: ‘We’re triplets! Can you tell? Can you believe it? They’re identical but I’m not. I’m a single egg! They’re just half of the one egg. Half-eggs. Would you like to buy us a drink? We quite like champagne.’
Lyn: ‘Got any good tips? Personally, I like Lone Ranger in Race Five. We’re drinking the $9.99 bottle of champagne if you were thinking of buying us a drink. We’ve already got glasses, so that’s OK.’
Cat: ‘You seem to have an unusually large head. It’s blocking the television and I’m about to win a lot of money. Could you go away? Unless you’d like to buy us a drink.’
The boy with the large head sat down in the booth next to Cat. He was very tall and they all had to squash together to give him enough room.
He had evil green eyes and stubble. He was gorgeous.
‘So,’ he said. ‘You’re all ex-womb-mates.’
Gemma thought this was hilarious and dissolved into tears of laughter. Cat sat back, sipping her drink, waiting for the gorgeous boy to fall in love with Gemma. Men generally fell in love with Gemma when she laughed. They couldn’t hide their sheepish grins of pride. It became their life mission to make her laugh again.
But this boy seemed more interested in Cat. He put his hand on her knee. She removed it and put it back on the table. ‘Did you just put your hand on Cat’s knee!?’ shouted Lyn, whose voice tended to rise several decibels when she was drunk. ‘GEMMA! That boy just put his hand on Cat’s knee!’ ‘Do you like her?’ said Gemma. ‘Do you want to kiss her?
She’s a good kisser. She says she is anyway. After you’ve kissed her, could you buy us some more champagne please?’
‘I don’t want to kiss him!’ said Cat. ‘His head is abnormally large. And he looks like a truck driver.’
She wanted to kiss him quite a lot.
‘If I pick a winner in this race, will you kiss me?’ said the boy.
They looked at him with interest. They were all gamblers. It was a rogue gene they’d inherited from their grandfather.
Lyn leant forward. ‘WHAT IF IT LOSES?’
‘Bottle of champagne,’ said the boy.
‘Deal!’ Gemma knocked over Cat’s champagne as she reached across to shake his hand.
‘What are you two, my pimps?’ asked Cat.
He picked a horse called Dancing Girl.
‘NO CHANCE!’ cried Lyn. ‘She’s fifty to one, for God’s sake. Why didn’t you pick the favourite?’
Gemma and Lyn were screaming on their feet for the whole race.
Cat stayed sitting next to the boy. She kept her eyes fixed on the television. Dancing Girl ran in the middle of the pack until the last few seconds when she broke free and began surging forward. The race caller’s voice rose in rapid surprise. Gemma and Lyn wailed.
Cat felt the boy’s hand at the back of her head. As Dancing Girl was thundering towards the finishing line, the boy was pulling her to him and Cat’s eyelids were closing as if she was sinking into a deep, delicious sleep. He smelled of Dunhill cigarettes and Palmolive soap and tasted of Colgate toothpaste and Tooheys beer and she had never wanted anything as badly as she wanted that boy.
The boy turned out to be Dan and Dan turned out to be her husband and her husband turned out to be a cheat.
Cat drained her beer and started on one of the other two. Gemma and Lyn had adored Dan from the moment Dancing Girl came in second and they turned around to claim their champagne, to find him claiming the kiss he hadn’t won. He managed to extricate his wallet from his back jeans pocket and hand it to Lyn while keeping his tongue firmly entwined with Cat’s. So cool! So sexy! So dexterous!
How could she admit the adorable Dan wasn’t so adorable after all?
She wasn’t going to tell them.
She slammed the beer down on the table, reached for the third and looked up to see her sisters walking through the pub towards her.
Gemma was dressed, as always, like an oddly beautiful bag lady. She was wearing a faded flowery dress and peculiar holey cardigan that didn’t match the dress and was too big for her. Her glinty red-gold hair was all over the place, a tangled mess that fell past her shoulders. Split ends. Cat watched a guy at the door turn to look at her. A lot of men didn’t notice Gemma but the ones that did really did. They were the sort of men who wanted to brush her hair out of her eyes, roll up her cardigan sleeves and tell her to zip up her bag before her purse got stolen.
Lyn had come straight from teaching aerobics at the gym. Her straight blonde hair was in a smoothly coiled knot at the back of her head. Her cheeks were pink and healthy. She was wearing jeans and a white T-shirt that looked suspiciously like it might have been ironed. A fair, lanky, sporty-looking girl. Her nose was too pointy, in Cat’s opinion, but she was attractive enough. (Although, maybe not?) When Cat saw Lyn she saw herself in three dimensions. Three very vigorous, Lyn-like dimensions.
Cat felt that sense of pleasure and pride she always felt when she saw her sisters in public. ‘Look at them!’ she wanted to say to people. ‘My sisters. Aren’t they great? Aren’t they annoying?’
They saw Cat and sat down on the waiting stools without saying hello.
It was one of their rituals, never saying hello or acknowledging each other. People found it strange, which they found enjoyable.
‘So I’ve been going to this new deli for my lunch,’ said Gemma. ‘Whatever I order, whatever, it seems to shock the woman behind the counter. I say, I’ll have the fruit salad and her eyes widen and she says, the “The fruit salad!” It’s the funniest thing.’
‘I thought you hated fruit salad,’ said Lyn. ‘I do. That’s just an example,’ said Gemma.
‘Well why not give an example of something that you actually ordered?’
Cat looked at her sisters and felt her limbs becoming weak with relief.
She ran her finger around the rim of her empty beer glass and said, ‘I’ve got something to tell you.’