I was walking through the brightly lit foyer of the supermarket when I spotted him. I was scanning the room as I always did – the self-checkouts, the fruit and vegetable section beyond – and there he was, a few rows deep, his broad shoulders and large head floating high above the cut watermelon under plastic.
I swore I wouldn’t let his presence throw me. I told myself I would move through the supermarket as calmly and methodically as ever and if our paths crossed so be it, but then I found myself reaching for a basket – when what I really needed was a trolley – and swerving away from the fruit and vegetables into the aisles.
I was in front of the canned foods, taking only one of each, the basket already heavy in my hand, when I heard his voice.
It was a jovial, friendly voice.
“Mate!” he said. “How are you?”
I was surprised he’d decided to do this. The last time I saw him, at the beach, he’d buried his face in his hands to hide from me and then, after our daughters found each other in the crowd, seemingly fled the beach altogether.
I told him I was okay and returned to the cans.
But he was waiting for more. He wanted to talk. He was standing there with a big grin on his face, I could tell. I could feel it burning into my back. So I asked him how he was. It seemed impossible to do anything else.
And he was off. He was busy, always busy, he told me. Too many flights interstate, never home. Other things. I wasn’t listening. I was giving him the cold shoulder. Or I was trying to give him the cold shoulder. I was searching through the tinned spaghetti for the one Winnie would eat. Then the baked beans, although she wouldn’t eat any of those. But he wasn’t taking the hint. It was hopeless. Excruciating. So I found myself doing it. I straightened up. Looked him in the eye – he did look tired, I thought. And it just came out.
“What happened?” I asked him.
I remember starting with that, as planned. And waiting.
He pretended not to know what I was talking about. He did a good job. I half believed him.
“Between Taya and Win,” I helped. Although it was between all of us really. We’d been to their holiday house.
“What do you mean?”
“Taya’s birthday party?”
“We didn’t have a birthday party.”
“You had a sleepover.”
“Oh,” he said. “I don’t have much to do with organising these things.”
I was expecting this. The downplay, the denial. I was prepared. I walked him through it. I may have counted them on my fingers. I’d put the basket down. Her three best friends in the world. First sleepover ever. All of them talking about it for weeks. Nights and nights of crying. I explained that none of us understood why, so what could we tell her? Why would she not be invited?
“I believe Irene spoke to your wife about it,” he said, vaguely.
It was odd, how in this moment he forgot Annie’s name – or was it deliberate? – but I wouldn’t be distracted by that, and I wouldn’t let him get away with this tactic either, trying to make out it was something between the women.
“Oh no,” I said. “She has no idea either. None of us do. Haven’t heard a thing.” And I looked at him again.
He’d gone quiet. He didn’t know what to say. He was half turned away but maintaining eye contact. What he seemed mostly was cowed. Like a scolded child. There was no defensiveness. But no admission either. It was all news to him, he seemed to be saying.
“It was very hurtful,” I said, hoping I’d come to the end of it now.
Finally, he said something else oddly formal – “Okay, I’ll take that on board” or “I’ll pass it on” – and regaining my composure, I said, “Yeah, do that.” Then I picked up my basket and walked away.
And I felt sick. Sick and triumphant.
It was only in the car that I thought about what Annie might say. That she might not be pleased. Yes, I had rehearsed this for months, but she didn’t want to have it out with them. She wanted it over. Taya had moved schools so we never saw them, and Winnie had finally stopped talking about it every night. And now I’d brought it all back up again. She’d worry about ramifications. Would there be ramifications? It would be relayed to others no doubt, and distorted in the telling. I’d be the bad guy. But I didn’t care about that. I felt good. I’d called their bluff. They couldn’t pretend now their actions had no consequences. That they held any kind of moral high ground. They’d made a six-year-old very sad and confused. They’d made all of us sad and confused. And I’d spoken truth to power? Maybe that was a little much.
I drove to the bottle shop.
The good feelings were hard to maintain against successive waves of shame. “Fuck them,” I said, against the waves. And: “They didn’t expect that!” And less coherent, less meaningful things like: “Who gives a shit” and “Nothing matters so who cares.”
Then, in the car, a beer between my knees, I gave myself a good talking to.
“If he’s going to come up to me in the supermarket,” I said, “and want to chat like nothing’s happened, tell me what a big deal he is, then… I’m not going to do it. Ignore me, fine. But if he’s going to talk to me, then I’m going to be honest. They deserve to know.”
That’s what I would say to Annie, I decided, draining the beer. They deserve to know. I’m not going to pretend. That sort of thing. I would have to say something. Explain it somehow. What I’d done.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 18, 2023 as "Consequences".
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