Tamika Wood’s Birthday Party

& Other Stories by Le Kendall


When I first left Sydney for Havenport it seemed like such a long way away. So many years later the drive back passes quickly and I wonder why I didn’t move further away.

I never intended to come back. Certainly not to come back here.

But sometimes it’s easier to ask for others when you can’t ask for yourself and I’m in trouble again. Again.

With Scott moving in officially I’ve now got three children to look after. And when the baby is born it will be four. And I’m going to go and ask Nanny Bas for help. Well… money.

She’d offered of course – back then – but still sick with fury from what The Dragon had offered with her chequebook I’d taken only enough for the train fare. The Dragon didn’t even know about the baby – babies although I didn’t know that yet – and I’d already made up my mind to leave. I did take her cheque, but I didn’t keep the money. And I’ve always been pleased with that. I needed it, of course. But I didn’t take it. And whenever I feel poor I ask the children…

“What do you do if someone offers you a large sum of money to do something you were going to do anyway?”

“Donate the money to Greenpeace in her name,” they reply. And it still makes me smile. She fucking hated Greenpeace.

I took money from The Dragon but I didn’t take it from Nanny. The Dragon didn’t know I was pregnant but I did tell Nanny. Nanny Bas had held my hand and promised not to tell. “Send me a photo of the baby?” she’d asked with tears in her eyes. And I did, eventually. I sent her two. Nanny Bas is good at keeping secrets.

I tell myself that if I’d known how hard it would be I would have accepted more. But I was always far too proud.

But before I visited Nanny I had somewhere else to go. Someone else to see.

It didn’t look like anyone had visited in a long time. No flowers. Just weeds.

I talked to him. The way we used to talk to him together. I told him what I was going to ask from Nanny Bas. And I cried the way I don’t let myself cry in front of my children.

He didn’t say anything of course. He’s been dead a long time now. And once I was all cried out I drove here, to the big house.

I come in through the back, of course.

“Is that you, Gillian Parker?” Says Nanny Bas. And she must be surprised. She doesn’t show it. She just hugs me and she smells the same as she always has and I want to say she looks as she always has. But she doesn’t. She’s older.

“She isn’t here, love.” Nanny Bas assures me. I wonder suddenly, why Nanny Bas still is. She has her own money – I know that – she’s not completely dependent on her daughter-in-law. But she hasn’t been well for a very long time.

I tell her about Michelle. About how scared I am. And this time I have more photos. Of Michelle. Of Alan Sebastian. At four and six and fifteen years old. And this time I accept the money she offers and I cry and I thank her.

And on the back of the cheque she writes an address. I can’t take one without the other.

“Tell her she’s pretty,” she tells me. “She needs to hear it.”

I don’t have to go there. But it’s in Wollongong which is in the same direction as home which means I have almost two hours to keep changing my mind.

I put Michelle’s tape on in the car. I’ve listened to it a few times since she gave it to me but I don’t understand it any better than the first time.

Alan Sebastian’s drum music is something I understand. I feel the rhythm in my bones and in my chest and it doesn’t move me the way it moves him. But I feel it and I can feel his frustration when he misses the beat and his satisfaction when he masters something complicated and new.

But Michelle’s Cello eludes me. It felt like an offering when she gave me the tape. “I wrote this,” she told me. But it doesn’t sound any different to me from her warm-up scales. It sounds the same to me as when she first began the violin so long ago. But I listen to it anyway. And I think if I could hear what she can hear perhaps I’ll understand her. But I can’t. And I don’t. It’s just one more thing in an endless list of things I don’t understand about my daughter. Her choices baffle me. Even more so when they mirror mine.

“My father would have understood me,” Michelle has told me more than once. And I wonder, not for the first time, if that would have been true.

I take the turn. I don’t have to stop, I tell myself. I don’t have to go in. She might not even be home.

She is. She’s outside, smoking a cigarette as I drive up. I’ve never thought that smoking was glamorous but somehow Shell makes it seem so. Her hair is long now, and she is wearing glasses which throws me for a moment because she didn’t, then. But Alan Sebastian does which makes me think I should have guessed it.

I don’t remember making the decision to stop and I don’t remember pulling over and I don’t remember rolling down the window. But I suppose I must have done.

“Gillian?” Shell’s eyes are wide with the surprise I’d expected from Nanny Bas.

She’s taller than she was. Taller than me, now. But not nearly as tall as Alan Sebastian who grows at an alarming rate.

Shell grins at me and says my name again and I wonder if I can pretend that I just happened to be driving by. It’s a main enough road that it’s a plausible excuse and it could be a random coincidence. She doesn’t enquire.

“How are you?” I ask her. And she tells me about music and friends and studying and she’s so alive that I wonder how I ever worried that she wouldn’t be.

Too soon she looks at her watch in dismay. “I have class,” she tells me. “I’m going to be late for the bus.”

“I can drive you,” I offer.

“I should say no,” she tells me. “But it’s just so good to see you…”

“I don’t have anywhere else to be,” I assure her. And we get in the car.

“What’s this?” she asks as I start the car. Michelle’s cello music is still playing and Shell closes her eyes and smiles as she listens.

“Do you like it?” I ask. I wonder what she hears in it. I remember how hard she tried to teach me to hear music as we lay beside the record player in her room, playing quietly so The Dragon wouldn’t hear and complain.

When she smiled like that I knew it was something good.

“It’s beautiful,” she says reverently. She tells me where to go and she listens and she nods and she smiles and I can’t hear what she hears at all. “So sad,” she says quietly. “I’m glad I heard it.”

Shell looks at her watch when I pull into the car park. “Now I’m going to be early,” she laughs.

I’m so… lonely. And I think about doing it all again. Because as much as I don’t understand Michelle she’s just a child and I can’t possibly let her take it all on on her own. I’d thought that I was done with the crying and the nappies and the endless nights… never enough sleep and never enough money and… and I had thought – for a moment – that from now on it would get easier. And instead I’m starting over with another baby.

It suddenly seems so unfair that Shell has so much life ahead of her when I’m going to be raising children until I’m fifty-four.

When I was a child I wanted to be a mother but I wonder now if I just didn’t know any other options. I was lonely and I had nobody but Shell. “At least the baby will LOVE ME,” Michelle says and I want to shake her. And I want to put my arms around her and stroke her red-brown hair and have her cry into my shoulder and know I’ll make everything okay. She hasn’t done that in a long time. And I no longer can.

“Are you happy, Shell?” I ask her.

She smiles wryly. “Nearly,” She tells me. “I wasn’t. For a long time, I wasn’t.”

When I saw her, standing there with her cigarette, I’d thought she’d looked like Alan Sebastian. But as her voice stutters over the words, as she confesses how very not okay she was… All I can see is Michelle.

“But now…” Shell says quietly. “Now I can see it, Jilly. Now I can feel it just out of reach. I’m not happy yet. Not quite. But I will be. I’m determined!” and she laughs again.

“Do you have a family?” I ask her and as soon as I do I want to take the words back and swallow them but Shell just shakes her head and laughs.

“No way.” She says. “I wouldn’t mind a girlfriend, though. Maybe a dog. One day. Once I’ve sorted more of myself out. You?” She asks. And I don’t know if she’s asking if I’m happy or if I have a family and I don’t want to answer either question. So I don’t.

“I have to go now.” Shell says. “Can I see you again?”

“I don’t think so.” I tell her. I don’t know what she sees in my face but she doesn’t push it.

“I’m so glad we ran into each other.” She smiles. For a moment I think I could lean over and kiss her. But I don’t. I reach out and eject the tape and fold it into her hand.

“You should keep this,” I tell her. “I think it’s more your thing than mine.”

“Well thank you,” she says. “Thank you for stopping.”

And I watch her walk away and convince myself, again, that it’s better that she doesn’t know.

The drive back to Havenport feels very, very long.

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