There’s no room along this narrow street to park so I back the van into the driveway of a darkened house. No lights come on. Nobody peers through the windows.
These new estates are rubbish. Dead ends everywhere. Speed humps. Tiny roundabouts. Oversized houses with front lawns smaller than my handkerchief. Scrawny baby trees replace the old oaks or gums bulldozed to make way for families to cram into boxes. They all look the same to me.
But only one matters.
I’m two doors down and across the road so it’s easy to see the occupants inside as they make their way to the door. Their car is in the driveway. Red. Mid-sized. Won’t take much to nudge it off a road... if it comes to that.
I light a cigarette and draw in the filthy tar until it hurts my lungs then blow out the smoke. It doesn’t help the visibility, so I open the window a crack. The air is bitterly cold already and it is only early evening.
The kid rushes out of the house to the car. She’s wearing a short dress, tights, and a puffer jacket. Makes no sense. Pants would keep her warmer.
‘Hurry up, Dad! I’m freezing to death!’
Like I said. Pants would keep you warmer.
She’s eight. Blonde like her mum. She jumps up and down in a circle, puffing out white air. Part way around, she stops and stares in my direction.
I lower the cigarette and stub it out in an empty soft drink can.
There’s no way she can see me. Not through the condensation and window tinting. Stare all you want, little girl.
‘Melanie, you forgot your backpack.’
Susie Weaver unlocks the car with a remote, handbag over her shoulder and the kid’s backpack in her other hand.
Melanie drags the door open and throws herself inside. ‘I was almost a snowman, Mum.’
‘Might need some snow first.’
‘I’ve never seen snow.’
‘Yes you have. We took you to Switzerland when you were three.’
‘I was a baby then. Can we go there now?’
Regular little chatterbox.
Her father is fussing with the front door. Checking it’s locked. Patting his coat for whatever he thinks he’s forgotten.
‘We’d better go, David.’ Susie is halfway into the front passenger seat.
Yes. You’ll be late if you don’t leave. Wouldn’t want you hurrying on the slippery roads. Not yet.
A minute later the sedan backs out carrying the perfect little family.
Soon to face the consequences of a bad decision.
When their taillights disappear around a curve, I turn the ignition.
‘I want to see you eat a whole bowl of linguine and dessert, Melanie Weaver!’
Melanie giggled as Carla Pickering tried her best to look serious. It didn’t work and she ended up laughing as well. Susie loved that about her best friend. Since Melanie was born, Carla had been more than her godmother. She’d been like a second mum.
‘Mummy, when the waiter comes, may I order my own meal please?’
‘You can, and even mine if you really want to.’
Spironi’s was always busy on Friday nights, and they sat at their regular table near the window. David had stepped outside to take a phone call so they were waiting for him. And for Carla’s husband.
‘Where is Bradley, hon?’
Carla shrugged. ‘You know what they’re like, both of them. Always something coming up at work at short notice. He promised he’d only run into the warehouse for a minute. And he’d better turn up because I don’t want to get a taxi home.’
‘We’ll take you if it comes to that.’
‘Comes to what? Sorry I’m late.’ Bradley Pickering leaned over Carla’s shoulder to kiss her cheek. ‘You should have started without me.’
‘Next time we’ll make it a girl’s night out,’ Susie said. Through the window, David—his back turned—wasn’t happy with whoever was on the other end of the phone. His shoulders were tense, and his spare hand ran through his hair. It wasn’t the first time this week he’d stood like that during a phone call.
Who is upsetting you so much?
‘Hello, baby girl.’ Bradley grinned at Melanie as he sat beside her.
‘Oh, you’re here!’ Melanie sat up straight. ‘I’m going to order my dinner. And Mummy’s.’
‘Rightly so. I should look at the menu. Starving.’ Bradley leaned back to catch the eye of a waiter. ‘Missed lunch.’
‘Then let’s order. I’ll guess for David,’ Susie said.
She didn’t have to. David came back in as their waiter arrived, sliding into the seat between Bradley and Susie. He made a show of turning his phone off and pocketing it and winked at Melanie. She tried to wink back but both eyes kept opening and closing. As soon as the waiter asked if they were ready to order, she stopped practicing and raised her hand.
‘I’d like to place an order please.’
Everyone laughed. It was impossible not to, but Melanie frowned at them until they stopped. Once she had the quiet she wanted, she precisely and politely ordered and then crossed her arms.
Carla whispered something to her, and Melanie’s lips flicked up in a smile.
David topped up glasses with red wine.
‘Not for me.’ Carla covered her glass with a hand.
Bradley was quick to fill her glass with water from a bottle in the middle of the table and she lifted the glass with a quick glance and murmured ‘thanks.’
The men began a quiet conversation. Melanie had the notebook she took everywhere and was doodling. Susie leaned closer to Carla. ‘No wine? Are you…?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll do a home test tomorrow.’
‘It will happen. And you will be the best mother ever.’ Susie squeezed her arm.
‘I just wish…’
‘Bradley and I waited too long. I always thought… expected…’
‘You’re not too old, Carla.’
Carla smiled. A sad smile which tugged at Susie’s heart. There were a few years between them and when Susie had fallen pregnant within a year of marrying David, Carla had teased her about being a young mum. But Carla never once wavered in her support of Susie and fell in love with Melanie on sight.
‘Aunty Carla, would you please smile at me and I will draw you.’
By the time mains arrived, Melanie was satisfied with the portrait but refused to show anyone until she coloured it in at home.
Despite the food in front of him, Bradley had his phone out, showing something to David. Their heads were close together, but the body language was strange. The more Bradley leaned in, the further David pulled back in his seat until his neck was craning to view the screen.
‘How about we eat? You know, rather than do business? David?’ Susie held her fork aloft to the make the point that she wasn’t about to start her meal until they stopped dealing with work problems at the table. Both men offered a sorry, and the table settled into a comfortable quiet as they enjoyed what was always a delicious meal. They’d been eating out together almost every Friday or Saturday night for years, often here where the food was great, and the ambience suited them all.
On the other side of the table, Melanie was trying to copy her father as he rolled spaghetti around his fork against a spoon. Flecks of tomato peppered her fingers, but she persevered until a small ribbon wrapped around the prongs and she hastily slid it into her mouth.
‘You’re so lucky, Susie. You have everything.’ Carla said.
Sure, if you mean a husband who is keeping secrets all of a sudden.
Susie glanced at David with a frown and picked up her wine.
Eyes back on Susie, Carla nodded. ‘You do, honey. Such a perfect family and now, with the new deals the boys are brokering for the business, you’ll be in a position to move closer to us. Something bigger. For Mel.’
‘I like our house.’
‘Well, Mel likes our garden. She loves our fruit trees and the pool. A bit more space.’
Like I once had.
Space to run and be loud and silly and lay on her back to stare at the sky. No fruit trees or pool, but better than that. A pony. Her pony. And a father who was her world…
She grabbed her wine and swallowed more than she intended.
‘Mummy? I need to use the ladies room.’
Melanie had left her seat and was beside Susie.
‘Oh. Okay, we’ll go—.’
‘Mother. I know where it is. I’m a big girl.’
Susie smiled and kissed Melanie’s forehead. ‘You sure are. But you only get to be out of my sight for two minutes or else I’ll think you are playing hide and seek, so don’t be long.’
Melanie rolled her eyes and darted off toward the back of the restaurant. She was safe here. The staff all knew her, and she’d be fine on her own for a few minutes.
She loved the lemony scent of the hand wash so Melanie washed her hands twice, singing. One day she’d be a singer, travelling the world. Or a famous artist. Maybe both.
About to hit the big button on the hand dryer, a noise on the other side of the door stopped her. Was that Daddy? She listened. It was. And Uncle Bradley sounded cross. Really cross.
‘Last chance, David. I mean it.’
‘And for the last time, I’m not agreeing to this.’
‘That’s your final word?’
‘Final word, Brad.’
Melanie slammed her hand onto the dryer button and stood close to it, drowning out the angry voices. She counted to fifty, turning the dryer back on twice.
But when she finally peeked through the door, they were just down the hallway a bit. Not just Uncle Brad and Daddy but another man with an angry face. She closed the door and raised herself up on her toes to look in the mirror.
Her fingers touched the glass, tapping them in time. ‘Best. Friends. Shouldn’t. Argue.’
Susie checked the time since Melanie left. Too long. Just as she was about to go to find her, Melanie slipped back into her seat, eyes down.
‘Sweetie pie? You look upset.’
‘Maybe a bit.’
‘Feel like telling me why?’
Melanie glanced back the way she’d come.
David and Bradley had disappeared in the same direction just after Melanie left the table. Susie was close to the end of her patience with this cloak and dagger crap, particularly when it impacted their evening out.
‘Did you see Daddy?’
With a nod, Melanie turned sad eyes to Susie. ‘Uncle Bradley is cross with him.’
Susie exchanged a glance with Carla, whose brow was creased. Obviously she had no idea what was going on either.
‘I’m sure it is just about business, so I’ll go and remind them they need to order dessert.’
After kicking them up their backsides.
Carla reached for a menu. ‘What are you having for dessert, Mel? I thought I’d try…’
Grateful for her friend’s automatic response of distracting Melanie, Susie headed for the back of the restaurant. She turned into the hallway to the bathrooms almost running into their waiter.
‘Sorry, Marco. Not looking. Do you know where David is?’
‘Talking with Mr Bradley. Near the back exit.’
She heard their argument before she could see them.
‘Mate, we both have to sign that contract. If you don’t, then I’m stuffed. You’re making the mistake of your life. Of all our lives.’
What the hell is Brad going on about?
Behind the men—who were face to face—the exit door clicked shut. David’s face was set. Bradley’s hands flew everywhere around himself as he waffled on until he noticed Susie. His arms dropped.
‘Congratulations to you both. Melanie is upset and thinks you hate each other, and I can see why. This is a social dinner. Not fucking business. Okay?’
After dessert, Bradley announced he had to go back to work for a while and before Carla had a chance to object, David insisted on dropping her home.
At Carla’s house, Susie climbed out to give her a hug.
‘I don’t know what’s up with those two,’ Carla whispered. ‘Silly boys.’
Susie rolled her eyes. ‘Very.’ She pulled back with a smile. ‘But thank you for always being there for me. I don’t know what I’d do without you.’
‘Always and forever, Carla.’
Within minutes of heading home, Melanie was asleep. When they turned onto the long stretch of open road they used as a shortcut between the two homes, Susie turned to David. ‘What was that all about? You and Bradley?’
He glanced in the rear vision mirror at Melanie.
‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for her to overhear us.’
‘Well she did. What is Bradley so angry about?’
‘We have different opinions on the direction of the business. You know how much money matters to him and I’ve knocked back an arrangement I think would land us in trouble. He disagrees.’
‘I heard him say you needed to sign a contract.’
‘First step on a slippery slope.’
‘Let’s just say I don’t trust the people he wanted to work with.’
Susie frowned. ‘Should I be worried?’
David reached across and squeezed her hand. ‘Of course not. Anyway, I’m looking forward to our drive tomorrow. Can’t wait to show you what I found and perhaps we can stop along the coast for lunch.’
‘Oh, I would love that! Melanie will love it!’
A blinding flash of light filled the interior as headlights—on high—appeared from nowhere behind them.
Susie swung around to look. Some idiot was right on their tail.
‘What the hell? Can’t see the road.’
Susie faced forward again, reaching for the grab handle above the door as their car drifted across the middle line.
The headlights disappeared.
They were in the wrong lane.
Thank god the road is empty.
Before David could get back into his lane, an engine roared and something large—a van—matched their speed, hard up against Susie’s window.
He slammed his foot onto the brake.
The van moved ahead.
They were sliding.
Melanie. Oh my god, Melanie.