I’m sitting in a cafe with my friend, Laura. She is eating a Full English Breakfast at 4PM. The egg yolks are sunny side up, with runny yolks – juicy yolks, my son calls them – she gags slightly as she eats them but I hover over her like a Sergeant Major. “Eat,” I urge. “Eat. You need something in your stomach.”
I found Laura passed out on her kitchen floor this morning, an empty bottle of vodka tucked under her arm like a teddy bear, her lipstick smeared across her face, her hair matted and twisted about her head as if it had been tumble-dried. She looked like a rock’n’roll tragic. If she’d been famous, the paparazzi would have been waiting outside.
Her son had rung me at 8AM. He was spending the weekend with his father but had come home to get his soccer gear. In the five minutes it took me to get to Laura’s house, her son had grown hysterical, crouching near the fridge. “I think she’s dead,” he sobbed. “She’s not breathing.”
I am good in a crisis but inwardly I was panicked. She wasn’t moving, her chest was still. I started CPR without checking to see if she was breathing and she vomited all over the floor. And again. And again.
“Mum!” shouted her son. “Are you all right?”
“She must’ve eaten something that didn’t agree with her,” I said.
“No she didn’t,” said her son. “She’s drunk. She’s always drunk. She’s not coping.”
The 14-year old wisdom of Laura’s son made us both sit back on our heels for a moment. We regarded each other like conspirators.
“I shouldn’t tell Dad about this, should I?” asked Laura’s son.”He’ll try and get full custody of Katie and me then Mum’ll be on her own.”
I felt bad for even suggesting he lie to his father but I nodded. “It might be best not to say anything at the moment. I’ll speak to your Gran and we’ll fix up your Mum. Don’t worry.”
After he left, Laura got up and ran to the bathroom. She was in there for ages. She emerged looking wan and shaky. “Toby saw me, didn’t he?” she asked.
“He thought you were dead.”
“Oh God, oh God – I’m going to lose them, aren’t I?”
“Toby’s not going to say anything to Neil just yet. I’m going to call your Mum and we’re going to sort this out. How long have you been drinking like this?”
Laura moved to the window. It was a perfect day. The kind of day where you put your shorts on and loll about reading the newspaper, drinking freshly-squeezed juice with lots of ice, and coffee with those little Italian biscuits that taste like lemon cheesecake. The kind of day where the butterflies wade through the flowerbeds, colouring the sky. The kind of day where the silence deepens and all you can hear is the soft blue sound of your own contentment.
“I can’t bear it when the kids are with him,” Laura said. ” I get so agitated knowing they’re going to see her. That bitch. I can’t deal with it.”
She is Neil’s 28 year old former mistress, now wife. She was his secretary. He was having an affair with her for two years before Laura found out. Laura never expected him to marry her. “He’ll cheat on her, just wait and see. Once a cheater, always a cheater.”
The sad truth for Laura is that Neil has remained faithful to his new wife of five years. They even seem happy. The kids seem to like her too. Laura pours herself a huge glass of water and walks out into the garden. Eastward, the sky is streaked with cirrus clouds. A flock of magpies converge in a Sydney Blue Gum, tilting their heads to the side as if listening.
“I know what you’re going to say, Selma,” says Laura. ” That I should count my blessings. I have two healthy children, a house without a mortgage, family and friends who support me, a good job, and an ex-husband who pays his child support on time. I mean, what more could I want?”
The magpies flutter their wings as if concurring. I squeeze lemons on the tree by the door as if I am an expert in assessing ripeness. “I’m like a character in a blues song,” says Laura. “Aretha said it all, she knows all about me.”
Oh, drinking again, thinking of when you, when you loved me…
“When the kids go to their Dad I become fixated on the past, on the way it used to be,” she says. “It’s like I have an obsessive-compulsive disorder. I get out all the old photos, the wedding album, watch the videos of the kids being born, read all the love letters Neil wrote to me. I know I shouldn’t do it but I can’t stop myself.”
“Do you still love him?” I ask.
“I don’t know. I hope not. That would make me one of those pathetic women, wouldn’t it?”
“Not necessarily. I’m sure many divorced women have some measure of love for their exes. It’s probably more common than you think.”
Laura sits on the grass. Her hair is full of auburn light, burnished, like a Renaissance painter has daubed his brush there. “If you want to know the truth, I am angry,” says Laura. “Neil got off so lightly. You always talk about karma – what goes around comes around; well I don’t believe in it. Neil’s got a wife who’s twenty years younger than him, a brand new 5-bedroom house with a pool, a fantastic job and opportunities galore. He’s just come back from a holiday in Paris, for God’s sake! And what have I got?”
“I’m not defending, Neil, ” I say. “But divorce isn’t easy for either party. How do you know it hasn’t been hard for him? Not everyone who suffers shows the evidence for it externally.”
“He certainly doesn’t. He’s the cat that got the cream!”
The phone rings. It is Toby, worried for his mother. Laura speaks to him, offering assurances. I wonder about this whole thing of keeping up appearances when your heart is crying out with sorrow; when to even draw breath requires the dexterity of a woodwind player; when seeing how much you’ve failed is easier than acknowledging that yesterday a dozen people smiled at you and meant it.
Laura comes back out to the garden, contrite, worrying at a tuft of grass with her foot. “I’ve got to stop this, haven’t I?” she asks. “It’s not doing anyone any good. I’m ashamed.”
“I know you wish things were different but you have to accept things as they are. Raging against the machine of life gets you nowhere in the end. Sometimes it’s easier just to let go.”
Laura has finished her Full English. She is on her third coffee. I am jumpy from too much chocolate cake. A little boy finishes an enormous milkshake at the table next to us, slurping loudly with his straw. A group of elderly ladies each wearing a delicate row of pearls, argues over who should pay the bill. A young couple animatedly discuss the front page of the newspaper; two teenagers sit with a bowl of chips between them, texting furiously on their mobile phones; a lady with a walking stick feeds the dog she has sneaked in, ham sandwiches.
Laura takes my hand. Her expression is teary but her grip is firm. The espresso machine shoots steam up into the air. The waitress brings the little boy another milkshake. His mother pats his head with affection as he begins to slurp.
“I’m in danger of becoming what people become when they can’t let things go,” Laura says. “I can’t let Toby see me like that again, see me holding my despair tight in my chest like clenched fists. I want to get up in the morning and say – It’s A New Day – and be glad about it. I want to try to be glad. I’m going to say it every morning. Today is a new day and it’s a good thing. Do you think it’ll work?”
Yes, Laura, I think it will.