We are wasting our time, you and me. I can tell you now how this ends, but you already know. It’s no secret, just a matter of timing and differing lines, but all trains are marked terminus.
If you had a say in how you got there, what would you choose? Would you want to live to a ripe old age? Hold out for the telegram in the nursing home on your hundredth? I’m too selfish for that. I’d choose to go quickly and painlessly (of course) and not too young. But most of all, I’d choose to go first. You can cry at my funeral. Being dead doesn’t bother me, missing the people I love does.
That’s the end of the story. In tragedies it happens quicker, unluckily or unhappily. In romances it just takes longer, and a bit of imagination. The end is not ‘they lived happily ever after’ because the after doesn’t last for ever. It’s in the marriage vows that all those princes and princesses must have said - till death did them part. That’s where the story really ends, and their promises to love too, it seems.
But I’m not sure where the beginning of this story is. When Zoe met Linden? When Zoe died? Or way back when Nick just couldn’t hack being nice anymore and decided to spice life up and call it an ideological stance.
Maybe we’ll start with Nick and where he comes from. He’s not really like anyone else. More like the Angels, but obviously not one of them. If I told you what he did, you’d think it must be exciting and action packed but actually it’s a lot of staying indoors. And he’d be to blame for that. He’s good at the PR, not the follow up.
But he looks the part. He doesn’t intentionally deceive people, they come with preconceptions and he doesn’t dissuade them. He’s easy to follow, he’s all they’ve got and he doesn’t lie to them with his words, whatever his appearance may do. Some stories get him nearly right but most of them are way off the mark. He’s more thoughtful than you’d think and not so much bad as possessing a short attention span. And he’s had plenty of time to be bored.
If I name the place you’ll get the wrong idea too. To start with, it isn’t a geographical place. They have to move about a fair amount. Wherever they can find, no hotter or colder than anywhere else. Sometimes, when he’s particularly bored, Nick will do something to really get up the Angels’ noses and they’ll come looking for him. If his people move fast enough they can bunk out before the authorities get there but more often they lose people. A few weeks later you’ll see them in the street looking ... content.
Nick relies on Winney for the organisation. He’s more into making policy and mischief. She’s the one who deals with the moves, handholds people through the deepest grief.
She keeps the register of who is trying to find who, although it was Nick’s idea. It’s a huge job that spawned an underground movement, a kind of resistance. But a fluid one. People come and go depending how eager they are to find someone. Winney keeps records of everyone that arrives and cross-checks them with the member contact requests. Then there are people on the ground meeting the new arrivals, sussing out if they might be interested, just plain taking names. That’s the most dangerous, most exposed. Many of them get caught and counselled. So many have been lost over time that way, or through raids, or sometimes they just get tired of waiting and hoping and decide to take the counselling, that Nick and Winney are the only long-term members.
So you really shouldn’t think of it as Hell. That will give you a completely distorted idea. The other side’s propaganda. It’s more a loose affiliation of misfits.
It’s not the way I would have it. In my perfect heaven, everything would be right. All my favourite clothes would be brand new. I hear every song that means something to me for the first time again. Every peach tastes like the peach I had when I was twelve. And the strawberries like the ones I once ate fresh and warm picked from the straw in a cold climate.
In heaven I look in the mirror and what I see makes me happy. In heaven I never say anything stupid and if I do, no one remembers, least of all me. In heaven, every cup of tea tastes like the first one of the morning. All the small things are right and I don’t wonder why the big things don’t make me happy. In my heaven, everyone I loved would love me.
But I’d get lonely, being the first.



This should have meant something. It should have had tidy edges. Instead it was just something that happened, in among a whole lot of something elses.
Zoe woke up to the sound of rain on their corrugated iron roof. It was one of the things she liked about this house, the sound of the rain falling so hard it seemed like it would burst through. She pressed her face against the glass of the back door. Liam pushed between her legs and the wood, sensing that his mother was acting like a child, that she was not, just now, with him. She pushed against him with her legs and he squirmed. The glass, the whole door, was cool to touch. Water streamed down the yard towards her, turning away at the back door to flood down the side of the house. She wanted to step out and immerse her feet but the squirming reminded her that Liam hadn’t had breakfast yet.
The rain made her feel trapped. She wanted to be outside, somewhere else, in the sun she hadn’t been to able enjoy yesterday because she’d been too busy working. It would rain all day and maybe tomorrow too, pelting rain that stung when it hit you, flooded the streets, made jokes of the umbrellas. It fell so hard that she couldn’t look through it, only look at it.
The night before she had stood here watching the storm blown in by the evening sea breeze. The hot humid day had only been bearable because she knew it would cool down in the evening. She had waited here with the back door open, for the rain to break the heat. At first there had been only distant flashes of lightning hitting the water. She felt like she could see every bolt falling between here and New Zealand, dozens of tiny sparks. As the storm approached, the wind rose suddenly, the air was still moist and heavy but now cold. She shivered. She could see the bank of clouds, dark and thick, rolling toward the coast.
The light in the yard broke in orange shafts ahead of the storm. As if to mock her attempts at a garden, they lit on the single scrawny lemon tree that had been there when they arrived. While punnets of seedlings withered and died, the lemon tree still provided a single lemon when required. Without warning, the storm was above her. The thunder no longer a distant rumble, but exhilaratingly sharp. She tried to count the seconds between the flash and the crash, but they came so hard on top of each other she couldn’t tell which went with which. It seemed like the lightning was falling all around her. The rain intensified, making the thunder barely audible over the terrible white noise. She didn’t hear Alex coming up behind her until he shouted in her ear.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Just watching. It’s wonderful.’
‘Is Liam scared?’
‘I checked. He’s asleep.’
They stood together in silence, engulfed by the noise and the light, overwhelmed by nature’s attempts to obliterate them.
Today the heat was returning and the rain had settled in, evaporating when it hit the ground so, even this early, the air was thick and hard to breathe. The yard was silver under the grey cloud-filtered light. Large drops of water hung from the lemon tree and from the cord tied from fence to fence for a clothes line. Fine droplets hung on the blades of grass, making them shimmer. The usually bleached fence palings that marked out the limits of their private world were dark and shiny. Liam’s toys, scattered around the yard, had a wet sleek coating.
Liam squirmed again and she realised he still hadn’t had breakfast. She pulled herself off the door and turned to the kitchen. This was one of her favourite times of the week. Saturday breakfast. No need to rush to work, an hour and a half until Liam’s swimming lesson. Time to make something slowly and enjoy it. Time to sleep in, if she hadn’t been woken by Liam’s cold feet as he crawled into the bed, by his little finger creeping exploratorially into her ear, by his stage-whispered ‘Is it breakfast time yet?’
Alex stood in the doorway to the kitchen, watching them. He was halfway through a yawn, an arm up and out. Between the old t-shirt, which she knew was covered in tiny holes, and the loose pj pants, he showed a strip of belly. Liam ran to him shouting ‘Daddy, Daddy’ as if he hadn’t seen him last thing at night. They both had goofy contented half smiles. Alex was cocooned and content, Liam still leaped at every moment like a puppy. Only she lived with nagging anxiety. Am I doing enough? Am I being judged? For Alex and Liam there was only them, now. She tried to be part of it.
She had learnt how to immerse herself in this. In the kitchen they moved and created, pretending on one side and believing on the other, that this hour caught between two worlds – the week of work and the weekend of good parenthood – was all there was. She was so good at the pretence that for the duration of the cooking, the sharing of a long slow breakfast, she became what she tried to be, surprised at her own want. She was part of this world where only the three of them mattered.
Alex made bacon and eggs, cooked in one pan. One pan had been big enough for two of them. With three, it no longer fit. The bacon was crammed in one corner, and cooked unevenly so that burnt bits were side by side with undercooked. The eggs were crisp on the bottom but more runny than she liked on top. Alex arranged Liam’s plate with two egg eyes, a rasher mouth and toast soldier hair. Liam ate the bacon in one mouthful and started begging for the rashers on their plates. The eggs would go to waste. She watched the clock ticking off the joy. Any moment Saturday morning would start for real and this would evaporate.
In the car, on the way to the nine-thirty swimming lesson. It was already nine twenty-eight when they dropped Alex at the shops. The list was constructed on the fly.
‘Toilet paper.’
‘Oh, stuff to clean the bathroom.’
‘Got that. But not dishwashing liquid.’
She circled the block once. It was a large block, encompassing a whole university as well as the pool, and it was impossible to either find a close park or to get Liam to walk all the way back. On the second turn around she came to a spot she had passed up the first time as too tight. They were already late, it was worth a try. She pulled forward to start her reverse, the car behind her pulled up on her tail. She waved him round, he sat. She waved him round again, the honking started from the growing queue.
‘Why are they honking Mummy?’
‘Not now.’
She waited for the queue to clear, impatient drivers yelling at her through wound up windows. She started her reverse and another queue formed. Flustered, she accelerated too fast, moved in at too sharp an angle and ended up wedged against the kerb, her nose out in the traffic as it streamed around her. She saw a spot come free a couple of cars ahead. A big spot next to a driveway she could just pull forward into. There was a small break in the traffic and she made her bid for the spot.
‘Quick, out of the car. Now, now, now. We’re already late.’
She strode, one hand towing Liam, his legs flailing to keep up, the other clutching swimmers and towel. Past the front desk at the pool where a bored student sat, her eyes barely moving to watch them as they hurried through the gates. She willed the girl not to ask for their pass. She threw their stuff onto a bleacher and set about stripping Liam. The class was already started.
‘Put your arm in here. No, in here.’
‘Mum! That hurts.’
‘You’re putting your head in the armhole. Hurry up.’
He wriggled his arms and head into the swimming shirt, and the naked bottom half of his body, seemingly independently, did a stamping jig to keep warm. She pulled his swimming trunks on, over the rounded belly, the still chubby legs, then turned him and gave him a push.
‘I’m cold.’
‘You’ll be fine in the water.’
He took off, sprinting towards the pool exuberantly. It was exciting to see how free Liam was. She had the urge to run after him. She knew that freedom, that certainty. She’d swum the length of the pool underwater, holding her breath. She’d sat on the bottom, she’d belly flopped and she’d dive bombed. Next week she would bring her costume. She would belly flop into the deep end where the serious swimmers did their laps. Liam would find that funny. That would be enough.
She settled for a moment to watch Liam leap in and called out, because she knew she should, ‘Careful Liam, don’t go in until Janelle says you can.’ But Liam was in the water and her authority only extended over dry land.
She had some papers with her she should look over, but didn’t want to. She decided to wait a few moments. See if one of the other parents started up a conversation. For the most part they were clumped in familiar pairs and she began to suspect, not for the first time, that everybody else had planned to have their children at the same time as a conveniently geographically and emotionally close friend so as always to have company on occasions like this. Having not looked ahead sufficiently to anticipate the boredom of swimming classes, she was left sitting on her own.
The pool had a glass roof, scratched and battered by time and hail, so that it now gave off a translucent glow and a noise that was the sharper, higher pitched relative of the tin roof at home. She settled down to proofread a report for work. She could have brought a book, but this way she wouldn’t have to do it tonight. Not that they were doing anything tonight. It was Saturday and they had a child. They were watching television but they were doing it together.
Before too long, she felt a small wet hand on the knee of her jeans. She looked up. Liam’s lips were a plummy blue. His whole body shivered rhythmically.
‘Are you cold?’
‘You’re shivering.’
‘Let’s get you dressed.’
She looked at him, the water dripping down the clumped strands of his hair, falling on his nose, his shoulders. His swim shirt and pants were Day-Glo colours in a frenetic design. Easy to spot on the beach, but for the hordes of other kids with identical costumes. It clung wet to his body and produced a slow drip onto her shoes. She restripped him, this time slower, calmer. He stood before her, glistening, naked, shivering, so small she could wrap his whole body, legs and all, in the towel and pick up a bundle with only his head peeking out. ‘I’m a bug’ he giggled as she rubbed him through the towel.
Another oasis in the day, a temporary lull in the rain. The three of them, sitting at a cafe. There was a row of shops here facing the beach, almost every one a cafe. She craned her neck to see if the name was on the awning above her. She couldn’t quite read it, and one of the large drops gathered at the edge fell cool and firm on her cheek. It didn’t matter. Although they were all different, this one steel and glass, that one mismatched op shop chairs, they were all differing embodiments of the grown-up life she felt at home in.
They ordered lattes and focaccias, for Liam a plain one with just ham and a chocolate milkshake. She had chosen this. It felt like the right shirt with the right fit. The footpath was crammed with tables and chairs, all spilling over with people just like her but not like her at all.
Even in the wet, every cafe was packed. Across the road the cars parked crazily around corners, trying to squeeze in. Down from the road to the surf ran a long grassy slope spread out like a flood plain across to where the ground started to rise again on the other side. The flat was dotted with little shelters. On a sunny day each would be claimed temporarily by a tribe with salads and bottles of soft drink and coins for their turn at the barbecues. Various games of soccer would intersect, coalesce and separate. Today there was one hardy soul perched on one of the benches, book in hand, staring out to the crashing waves.
A few stoic parents dripped and watched over their kids at the playground, one eye on the child, one on the regrouping storm clouds. There were more parents than kids but she knew that there were children hidden inside the giant starfish, or octopus - she’d have to count the legs next time. It was Liam’s favourite place in the playground. The inside was encrusted with marbles, kewpie dolls, tap heads, matchbox cars and dozens of other treasures that each child pushed and argued to rub, hold or just sit next to. Down on the sand a few solid toddlers, excited by the wild movement of the water and its promise of freedom, had stripped off despite the wind and wet and were being more or less successfully restrained by a parent.
Liam and Alex talked, and she listened. They talked about what Liam did at day care that week. Which kid pushed who, and who were best friends. They talked about whether it was rude to say ‘bottom’ and what got you a time out. Zoe watched the rhythmic drip from the awning and let their conversation wash over her, at the same time reading the newspaper at the next table upside down. She would be here in a week or two and the beach would look the same, with more or less sunshine, and the people would look the same but be different. It seemed impossible that there would ever be a last time. The most she could imagine was a gradual evolution. That each time the experience would be slightly different so that one day it would not be this. Yet she felt there would still be cafes and a beach and the three of them.
It occurred to her that Liam would grow. She tried to picture the three of them here with Liam at ten, fifteen, twenty-three. She couldn’t bring the imagined adult into focus, but everything else about the scene remained static. She could imagine a twenty-three-year-old, just not Liam. And she couldn’t imagine being the person who was the mother of a twenty-three year old Liam. When she had been younger, a teenager, she had been able to clearly picture what she, and her life, would be at different stages. She even knew what it would be like to be old and the only one left standing. She would take in lodgers, young men and women to help her around the house. As she grew up and experienced the unpredictable eddies of life, these images evaporated. Now she couldn’t imagine what it was to be not now.