I pull the car around the corner, pressing the remote that’s clipped to the sun visor. The garage door whirs to life, clinking upwards, revealing the spill of bikes and chalk and empty moving boxes. My kids tumble out of the car, bounding into the house the way they always do; already running to the fridge, the pool, the park at the back. I pick up the scrawl of disarray they leave in their wake – socks and bags and stray food containers – and head to the street to bring in the empty wheelie bin that’s been sitting there far longer than it should have. When I wheel it in, I find my neighbour watering her front garden, the ends of her white hair escaping from underneath her broad brimmed hat. It’s a rare sight, seeing her outside, and I give her the greeting we’ve come to establish – a smile, a brief hello. She keeps to herself and she makes it clear I’m to respect that. I’m almost at my front door when I hear her speak.
“Your kids,” she says, and I turn around to face her. “They’re not here all the time.”
Though she disguises it as a statement, I hear the question in her sentence, and I’m momentarily caught off guard. Shrieks spill from inside the house; the banging of cupboards, the slamming of doors, alerting the entire neighbourhood to the fact that we’re home.
“They’re not here all the time, no,” I reply. “The rest of the time they are with their dad.” I offer a smile then, to indicate how she should interpret this information.
“Oh,” she says, pulling her lips into a thin smile. “I see.”
Her tight smile remains fixed, and I watch as she eyes me, as though I am everything that’s wrong with the world today, as though I am a disease she might catch. “Well,” she says, and I wait for her to finish. When it becomes clear that she has nothing more to say, I smile, her disapproval of me endearing to take in — that I could be such a controversy, so wildly brazen; a woman living alone with three children and no ring to show for it.
“Good day then,” she says, and in that exact moment, Georgie runs out to us, completely naked, the sight of her confirming the recklessness and dissent my life really consisted of. I laugh, scooping her up to chomp into her neck, waiting for the giggles I knew would come. My neighbour watches us with distaste before promptly turning to leave, and I watch as she disappears into the depths of her house. We head inside, Georgie and I, me with my little illegitimate child back into my little illegitimate life.
Pregnant. The word lurches at me from the screen like a punch to the stomach, knocking the wind out of me. I’m temporarily relieved I had asked him to email me the news, but the reprieve is short-lived. My legs buckle beneath me. My vision narrows. I instantly hate that word. What a horrible, ghastly word it was. I stand there, staring at it like all of this wasn’t really happening and all of this wasn’t really true. I read the sentence again, and a desperation floods me; that my own children would have a brother or sister that has nothing to do with me, that they would belong and bond to a family separate from me, these children I had grown inside me and howled into this world. You idiot, I say to myself. Look at what you have done.
“I’m sorry,” the real estate agent says. “The owner has decided to retract that property. It is no longer available for you to move into.” I hold the phone still to my ear, and wonder if I have heard her correctly. The pit of my stomach starts to prickle. “But there were 4 available townhouses. You told me I was guaranteed at least one of them?”
“I’m sorry,” she says, again. “The owner has now decided he does not want any children at the property.”
I wait a second to try and calm my rising panic but it bubbles over before I can get a handle on it.
“And it took you this long to tell me?” I ask. “I have terminated my current lease and have to be out of here in 5 days. What exactly do you propose I do?” It’s a childish response, and I know it, but I’m too frantic to care.
“I’m sorry,” she says again, and I hang up the phone quickly so she doesn’t hear me cry.
“Eleni is pregnant,” the therapist says. “That’s the sentence.”
I say nothing.
“Full stop,” she clarifies.
I continue with my silence, because this has clearly never happened to her and she clearly cannot grasp the level at which the world is ending.
“The suffering is not the sentence.” She pauses. “The suffering is the story you attach to that sentence, and the extent to which you believe it.”
She waits for me to assimilate what she is saying, and it’s then I realise this is not her first rodeo. The pause is poignant. She is waiting for me to scan my mind, to consider the stories I might be telling myself about this new development, to examine whether I have any proof that they are true. It’s a clever process but I am too bereaved to participate. ”You don’t understand,” I object. “Maybe not,” she says, “But you have no evidence that just because Eleni is pregnant, you are further losing your children. It might be worth examining what beliefs you are telling yourself because of this new information.”
I stare at the ceiling blankly, berating myself for being such an irresponsible, unstable mother. Every frantic real estate search comes up blank, and so with little options left, I pick up the phone and call my parents. It answers on the third ring. “That house you bought,” I say into the phone. “When will it be ready to go on the market?” Every year, my parents buy a property to renovate and turn over for profit. At the start of the year, when I could barely decide what to cook for dinner let alone how to make smart decisions for my future, my parents had taken all the money I had and used it for one of their projects.
There is a smothered hand over the mouth piece, a “Rick! When is the floor guy going to be finished?”, some scratchy back-and-forth conversation I can’t make out. It’ll be liveable next week, they say, able to go on the market a few weeks after that. The second I hear it, I make my decision. Or rather, my decision is made for me. I am moving to Bribie Island.
The girls skip ahead to the water. The sand burns our feet and we shriek as we run to the water’s edge to cool them. Dogs bound around us in every direction. Billy slips his hand into mine, and when he does, he looks up at me and says, “Mum, I love it here.” I squeeze his hand, watching the sea breeze rustle his hair, the freckles on his face impossibly beautiful to me. He soon runs off to join the girls and I watch as they befriend an elderly man and his two dogs, throwing sticks, running, chasing, shrieking, splashing. I leave them be for ten minutes or so, then walk over to check it’s okay that my children play with his dogs. “Yes, of course,” the man replies, his long, white hair whipping wildly in the wind, his loose ponytail evidence of the kind of young man he once might have been; pouring over poetry books, taking philosophy classes, painting, debating the greatest minds in English literature. My name is Bill, he says. Nice to meet you. We spend half an hour chatting, my children running after his dogs, us discussing the life and thinking of DH Lawrence, him spouting a relevant Mark Twain or Shakespeare quote for every part of my life I divulge to him. You love your quotes, don’t you? I say. He laughs before replying, Actually, they are called quotations. Quotes are the things a painter will give you. When it comes time to leave, he says, “I can’t tell you how nice it has been to be in your presence.” I smile back at him and he says, “It can get isolating sometimes. My wife has Parkinson’s and she’s not very mobile. We have no grandchildren and being around you and your children, well, it’s just been lovely. Thank you.” He reaches out to hug me, my new unlikely friend, and as I hug him back, he says, “It was DH Lawrence who said, In every living thing is the desire for love. I can see that your children don’t doubt the love you give them. You are raising them beautifully.”
I walk along the dog beach, the setting sun casting a rich orange glow over the water as I walk. It’s my favourite place on earth, dogs bounding past me, ocean birds swooping down to catch their dinner, the salt air rushing past my face. Any day now, my children will welcome a new baby into their family, and I will press new baby clothes and meals into the hands of Joel and Eleni. The waves crash to the shore and I remember the girl I once used to be, tortured with guilt and remorse, crying herself to sleep with images of a stepmother braiding hair and tucking children safely into beds in the place I should have stood, as if the sacred bonds of motherhood could be threatened by another woman’s hair tie. I am alone, but I am not lonely, loves and lovers having come and gone, each one I cut loose serving their purpose in healing a corner of my heart and pointing me towards each new stepping stone in this new life. I have learned how to love my children without possessing them, that they should even be things for me to own and therefore things for me to lose. I walk this beach every day, marvelling at the fact that it is never until later that we can ever join the dots of our lives – that we can trust in life when it doesn’t go to plan, that of course I should have moved here, into this house I happened to own, five minutes from my parent’s house, from a beach that heals me, from a place that makes us all feel like we are home. I run into Bill on the way back, and he presses a copy of The Horse Whisperer into my hands. “This is for you,” he says. “It’s brutal to begin with, but it turns into the most beautiful story.” As he looks at me, I realise he isn’t talking about the movie any more, and I take the DVD into my hands, thanking him. “It’s healing,” he says. “Just like this beach I watch you walk on every day.”
If you had told me a year ago that this would be my life – that I would finally be at peace with the choices I had made despite the grief they had racked me with, I never would have believed you, not in a million years. It’s true what they say: It’s a long, bending, ridiculous, holy life we live, and time heals almost all of it.
I pull into my driveway, pressing the garage door remote. My children pour out of the car and I head to the street to bring in the wheelie bins. When I get to the front, they’re not there and for a moment, I’m confused. Did I forget to take them out? What day is it? Have my parents been over? It’s then that I hear my neighbour’s voice. I spin around to find her there, in her garden, her white hair falling in front her of glasses ever so slightly.
“I hope you don’t mind,” she says, “I brought your bins in.” My eyes instantly flash to the side gate, and there they are, perfectly lined up side-by-side. I turn my head back to face her.
“You have your hands full,” she says.
I remain silent, frozen in some degree of shock.
“Mine aren’t so full,” she says. “And it’s nice to be able to help you.”
“Thank you,” I reply, the only thing I could think of to say. She nods, and we stand there smiling at each other, something hanging in the air between us that feels holy.
“You’re doing a great job,” she says, and tears instantly prick my eyes. I will myself not to cry.
“Have a good day,” she says, and as she turns to leave, I stand there in disbelief.
I am held in place by the new home I have found here and by the unlikely relationships I have formed. As my neighbour heads inside, it strikes me that DH Lawrence is wrong – it is not love that every living thing desires. Love is too complex a concept, too shrouded in possession and duty and often, pain. It is simply human connection we crave – to touch another’s spirit, to know we are held, to help and be helped, and to understand that despite all of our heartache, we are not alone in this vast expanse of universe.