Jean Thompson has no idea on god’s earth why her daughter is not speaking to her. She can only guess – what else can she do? – since Debbie wrote in that terrible email that she would rather stick pins in her eyes than have a heart-to-heart chat with her mother.
Had John said something to her? Her husband had been dead two years, but Jean wouldn’t put it past him to have said something untrue and unkind to Debbie about her before he passed away. He had always been Debbie’s favourite parent – she was a daddy’s girl – them with their long necks and secret selves sealed like parcels. It drove her mad! Looks passed between them, smuggled you might say.
Jean had racked her brains trying to think of what she could possibly have done to invite such a poisonous diatribe. She had only asked if she had done anything to upset Debbie and suggested they have a chat. Debbie had responded with an email so nasty, so vile, that Jean honestly thought for a moment her heart might stop. She had fallen to the floor and lay there till she was certain her heart was beating again, her breath back, as the fan in the study ceiling moved the air.
Debbie wrote that Jean had forced them to go on that holiday to Noosa. Forced them! Jean had paid! She had paid for ice-creams and dinners and hotels for Debbie’s two useless boys and her hopeless husband, Paul, and Jean had never mentioned money, not once – and Debbie wrote that Jean had been so spiteful and rude to Paul at Debbie’s birthday lunch that every single person at the table was embarrassed.
Honestly, Jean couldn’t even recall speaking to Paul during the entire lunch, he was at the very far end of the table. She had gone over and over it a million times and still had no idea what Debbie was talking about.
She couldn’t quite believe it, still. It had been two weeks since Debbie’s email. She had printed it out, re-read it many times, asked two close friends for their opinions. Did they consider her a spiteful person? No, they did not. Was she difficult? No, she was not. Perhaps, suggested one friend, Debbie was going through a bad patch in her marriage. It was true that Debbie’s eldest boy, Gabe, had just left home and Debbie was not dealing with it very well. In fact, the more Jean thought about it, the more this made sense: this was not about her, Jean, but about Debbie and whatever was going wrong in her life.
For the first time in a fortnight Jean went to bed with a feeling not of relief, exactly, but more like a sensation of satisfaction.
But sleep that night proved elusive. She turned this way, she turned that way, and when she did fall asleep she was visited by dreams growing out of her actual, lived life like weeds from dirt. She dreamt about the elderly Vietnamese man in the apartment below hers, where she and John had lived for 30 years – and where she lived still – after selling the family home when Debbie and Philip left. In the dream the old man was more wizened, sadder. In real life he had been a dreadful nuisance, always tacking up the wrong sort of awnings on the balcony or parking his van in the wrong place. She was forever going downstairs to knock on his door armed with the body corporate by-laws. Any blinds on verandahs must be approved first, she said. Or, No air-conditioning units to be visible on that side of the block.
When he finally moved out – and this part was true not a dream – he parked his van in such a way as to block access to the parking area, and Jean had to go downstairs to tell him to move it. And then he used a dirty old trolley to move the pot plants off his verandah. Up and down the lift, all morning, leaving a trail of dirt and leaves on the lift carpet. It was when she was downstairs checking the mail that she saw his empty trolley parked by the entrance – presumably he was putting pot plants in his van – so, instinctively, she grabbed it and locked it inside the storage cupboard opposite the lift. The keys to the cupboard were on her key ring – it was done in a flash – and she was back inside her apartment for a good half-hour before he came knocking, asking if anyone had seen his trolley. No, I have not, she said, shutting the door.
She told John what she had done. He didn’t say anything, but a mysterious look passed across his face. It was the kind of joke of which she approved but which John did not and the sort of dividing fence that illustrated everything in their marriage in which Jean ended up one side and John on the other.
That bloody trolley! There it was in her dream, locked in the cupboard, and there was John sneaking down with the key to unlock the cupboard when she wasn’t looking. This part was true, too – it was John who unlocked the door and freed the thing; their neighbour Pat confessed to her months later that she had seen him – but when had he done it? While Jean was cooking lunch?
She had seen the old man with his trolley again when she went out to bowls that afternoon and hadn’t been able to work out how he retrieved it. John never breathed a word. Now here was the trolley resurrected in her dream, the old man wheeling it, and there she was, wheeling it herself. She was stuck in the lift with it, up and down. And there was John and Debbie with their long necks and reproachful eyes, and the old man – who must be dead now too – and his dreadful pot plants. The light in the lift flicked off and Jean couldn’t get out.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 27, 2024 as "Daddy’s girl".
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