A TALE OF SECHS CITY
DJ Sammy's version of "Heaven" springs into life; quiet at first, increasing in volume quickly. She presses a button, keeping one eye on the traffic lights three cars up ahead of her.
"Hey, how are my two favourite people?"
She smiles. "We're great, thank you, daddy, aren't we, little man?" She looks into her mirror to see an excited five year old's face.
"Yeeeeeeeess," he calls out happily.
There is laughter on the other end of the line. "Well, I really hope you have a lovely time this afternoon, and wish Georgie a very happy birthday from me; will you do that for me?"
"Thanks, little man!" The voice tones down, slightly more serious. "Hey, babe? Do you need anything from the market tonight on my way home?"
The light has gone green and she slowly starts to drive off, wracking her brain as she does so. "Not that I can think of. I'll call you if I think of anything."
"Okay, well, if you do, give me about half an hour, 'cos this meeting is really important..."
"Yeah, yeah, I know," she replies good-humouredly.
"You just don't want your embarrassing ring tone to be heard by your boss."
"You got me," he laughs. "Okay, have a good time. I love you."
"I love you too. Bye."
Victoria McGovern beams as she switches her phone off. Eight years of a relationship, six years of a marriage, four and half years of parenthood; all summed up with three beautiful words that they never overuse. Filled with a burning happiness as fond memories play in her mind, she switches on her favourite radio station. Soon, KC & The Sunshine Band start to play, the addictive funk filling the car. She nods her head in time with the music, and as they turn into the street of their destination, starts to sing loudly, "That's the way -- uh huh, uh huh; I like it -- uh huh, uh huh..."
Kyle puts his hands over his ears. "Stop it," he complains loudly, "stop singing, mommy."
Victoria pulls a shocked expression. "Don't you like mommy's singing?"
He shakes his head.
"Well, everyone's a critic." She turns the radio off to concentrate on finding a parking space.
There are already quite a few cars parked outside the large house, with obviously some neighbours allowing cars to be left on their driveways to help out. This was one of the nicest things about living in this part of the town. The sense of community bonding was staggering.
The noise of loud party music can be heard from behind the house. Bright pink balloons decorate the driveway and fence posts. A large sparkly banner is displayed on the front door, proudly exclaiming in bold letters: FIVE TODAY!!
Kyle's hand in her own, him holding carefully onto the present that she carefully wrapped, Victoria makes her way into the large back garden of the Pinters. Kids are everywhere, running around with an almost infectious energy, excited and deliriously happy. Kyle, in an uncharacteristic moment for him, shyly backs into his mother's side and holds her leg tightly.
"Hey," she says, bending down to smile gently at him. "Why don't you go say hello and give Georgie her present?"
Reluctantly, he removes himself and slowly walks up to the birthday girl, who is standing near her mother wearing a pretty pink dress. Victoria watches him, a small proud smile on her lips as he politely says hello to them. In a matter of minutes all his fears and shyness have disappeared as fast as the wrapping paper on the presents resting on a small table near a large French window.
From this open doorway comes the sound of laughter, gossip and the occasional bitching session. After making sure Kyle is happy playing with the other children, Victoria steps through and into the large living room.
A long table with a clean cream tablecloth is laid out with bottles of all kinds of drink -- many of these parents have been able to walk their children over and so there are some on their second, third glass. Victoria smiles politely at a few, making small talk with another pair, before, just like her son, her courage is lifted by the sight of a slightly cynical looking dirty blonde, who waves frantically at her with a free hand, her other holding two large glasses of delicious looking red wine.
"Thank god," she breathes to Victoria, kissing her briefly on the lips and passing over one of the glasses. "I thought you'd given up."
"Hardly," replies Victoria. "What's wrong? You don't look that happy."
Kellie Byrne laughs shortly. "All week long -- all week -- it's been, 'Mommy, can I wear the green dress? Mommy, can I wear the green dress?' So I get it out, I wash it, I clean it, I get it looking fucking amazing; and what does she say this morning? 'Mommy, I don't like that one. I want that dress.' And she points it out to me and now I'm wondering whether or not she's gone colour blind all of a sudden."
"Why? What colour was it?"
"Red. Fucking red."
There are a couple of raised eyebrows nearby. Victoria notices them but doesn't say anything. When you're best friends with a woman like Kellie Byrne you have to learn how to deal with cursive language quickly.
"I just hope that's all it was," she continues now, having had a long sip of wine, "and not something she inherited from her father."
"Have you heard from Freddie at all?"
"He called last week to talk to her. He and Concha are in Cyprus at the moment. Honeymoon Cruise."
"Concha? Honeymoon? God, I didn't realise he was as serious as that about her."
"Neither did I," mutters Kellie. "I hope their boat sinks..."
Victoria laughs into her wine glass, spitting a few drops back into it, as Kellie's daughter Ryan runs into the room looking for her. She has her father's brown hair, but already shows the signs of gaining her mother's pouty lips. There are tears beginning to form in her brown eyes now.
"What's wrong?" asks Kellie, looking down at her daughter, genuine love in her voice. Victoria smiles at this scene, as Ryan begins to tell her mother about a boy who keeps pushing her over while they try to play Tag. She has heard so many negative comments from other parents about Kellie, about whether she has what it takes to be a single mother, about whether or not she genuinely cares for her daughter or just views her as a drunken mistake. They're idiots, the lot of them. Ryan is the most important thing in Kellie's life. There isn't anything she wouldn't do for this child.
"Well, which boy is it, sweetheart?" she asks now, bending closer to hold her daughter's face in her hands and stroke it gently. "Show me which one. Come on; it's okay. Show me who's being nasty to you."
Taking her mother's hand, Ryan starts to lead her though the other parents towards the garden. Victoria follows, a slight worry in the back of her head that her own son is responsible for this. She feels bad to doubt him, and even worse when she feels relief to see him happily playing with two other kids in a sandbox.
Ryan points out towards the back of the garden. "Over there," she says, a little discomfort in her voice. "That boy there."
Kellie and Victoria follow the pointing finger. There, in amongst a horde of running children, is one sullen looking boy, already beginning to have a go at another one close by him.
"Is everything okay, Kellie?" Laurinder Pinter moves over to the two women, her smile warm though slightly unsettled. She is the type of woman for whom everything must be perfect. The fact that there could be a problem at one of her parties obviously fills her with so much dread she must face it head on. Victoria has always thought that she is a bit of a snob; Kellie has always said it out loud.
"Not really," replies Kellie, perhaps a little too shortly; Victoria feels herself wince a little at the abruptness of it. "That boy over there seems to be terrorising a lot of the kids here, including Ryan. She's very upset about it."
Laurinder looks over to who Kellie means. "Oh...oh dear," she says, her hand on her forehead. "That's Tim Wolff's son. Oh god."
"What's wrong?" Victoria asks.
"Well, they just moved into our neighbourhood about a month ago. Tim said he'd been having trouble adjusting to the move. One more thing for him to be confused about. First his mother, now this."
"She died last year. Cancer. Awful, just awful," Laurinder explains, as if she knew the woman personally. "Can't imagine what a terrible loss that must have been for him. Or for his son. Awful."
"Be that as it may," Kellie insists, "kids shouldn't just be left to walk around picking on other kids. Where is this guy? I want to have a word with him."
Laurinder pulls a face, paranoid that a scene is going to start and get progressively worse. "I'll, er, just go and find him for you." She wanders off into her house, her face still displaying signs of discomfort.
"Stuck up cow," mutters Kellie, stroking her daughter's hair. "It's worth it just to make her wince."
Victoria can't help but grin at her friend's comment, and tries to hide it with another sip of wine. She stops when she sees Kellie' eyes widen slightly at something behind her; she hears her mutter, a little quieter, "Oh shit..."
Laurinder returns. With her is a tall man who, at a guess, is in his mid-thirties. A face with stubble is topped by a head of brown hair which just comes to a rest above his eyes. His eyes are a deep mixture of blue and green. He is dressed in casual, faded denim jeans and a loose light green t-shirt. A half-full bottle of beer rests between his fingers, the nails just slightly longer than perhaps they need to be.
"Hi," he says; his voice is soft, quiet, and friendly, as if shouting is a foreign language. "Sorry, I'm Tim Wolff. Laurinder said there was some kind of problem...?"
"There is," replies Kellie shortly, jumping in before he can finish his sentence. "Your son is picking on a lot of the kids here, including my daughter. She was very upset just now. I'm sorry but you're going to have to say something to him about it. It's not right."
Tim's face falls slightly. He looks out towards the garden, his eyes scanning around to find his son amongst the other children. What he sees confirms Kellie's accusation; Victoria can see it as sadness enters those eyes. She feels a slight chill along her arms. She'd hate to be in his shoes, to be the one embarrassed by her own child. That seems such a horrible thing to think -- that your own child embarrasses you. Really, you've embarrassed yourself. It's your parenting skills that have been brought into question, no matter what the circumstances are.
"I'm sorry," Tim says, a little quieter. "It's not been easy on him. On either of us. I'll go and have a talk with him."
Laurinder, standing on the sidelines, nervously fiddling with one of the straps of the frankly disgusting dress she is wearing, decides to butt in at this point. "Actually, Tim...I think...maybe it would be best if you took him away for a bit. Maybe for a walk around the block. Just so the other children don't see a scene."
Tim can do nothing but nod. All at once, a sudden burning hatred enters Victoria's mind. Stupid cow, she thinks to herself, looking over at Laurinder who, walking back to a couple of very plastic looking women seems smugly satisfied with her actions. Stupid, ugly cow. The venom of her thoughts surprises her, perhaps even shocks her a little. She takes another sip of wine and tries to look casual, as if she doesn't want to grab her own child and take him away right this second.
As Tim begins his walk down the garden towards the children, Kellie raises her eyebrow at her friend. "Holy shit," she whispers. "Talk about cute, huh?"
Victoria crinkles her brow slightly. "Really? I dunno...I guess, maybe. I don't think he's really my type."
"Type," snorts Kellie. "Vic, you know I think that's all a crock of crap. I'd jump him in seconds."
Victoria raises an eyebrow. "That's just because you haven't had it in so long."
"And you get it every night, Mrs Wife?"
"Not every night, no..."
Kellie smiles slightly, as if she's won the victory in this conversation. "It doesn't matter, anyway," she says. "He seems too nice. Too cute, too nice. There's no way he'd ever end up with someone like me. I get all the crap that's left over. Life ain't fair, babe. 'Course, you can't complain really, can you?"
Victoria beams. Her friend is right. She is happy -- incredibly happy. She wishes so much that Kellie could experience some of that happiness. Whenever she manages to make it more than a one-night stand with a guy they always turn out to be complete dicks. Ryan's father was no better. A long time ago he had been the love of Kellie's life. People change. Nothing stays the same forever.
Victoria feels a slight chill crawl up her spine as she dwells on this. What kind of thinking is this at a children's party? The cake is about to be cut; the candles are lit. Soon there will be presents to unwrap, more games to be played. Enjoy the afternoon; enjoy watching your child grow up.
"I forgot to call you. Shit! I knew there was something I had to do."
Julian stands in the doorway: tie slightly loosened, jacket over his arm, briefcase in his hand, bewilderment on his face. Victoria rarely swears in the house, for fear that their son should hear her and start copying it in front of his grandparents. She only ever really uses those words when she's stressed out.
"It's okay, babe. What was it you needed? I can go now if you want..."
Considerate to the last, always wanting to help out, to do anything for her. Victoria sighs and plants a long kiss on his lips, feels his free hand stroke her back lightly.
"It's fine. Don't worry. I only need a few things. I'll go and you crash on the couch with Kyle. He's watching the Muppets."
Julian beams. "That's my boy."
They kiss again; warm, loving, affection. She picks up her bag and heads quickly out the door.
The sun is still hanging lazily in the sky, cooler than it was several hours ago, but she is still grateful for the long flowery dress she is wearing. She makes off at a brisk pace, eager to spend more time with her family. What's going through her mind this afternoon? She loves them both so much, Julian and Kyle, yet she very rarely feels this needy towards them. What will things be like when she goes back to work in a few months? Will she be able to cope? Of course she will. What kind of thinking is that? What is the matter with her today?
The grocery store is busy, but the atmosphere is fairly quiet. The shoppers walk round as if in a daydream, taking their time, not rushing to get out of there. Perhaps it is to do with the cool air conditioning that blasts out from every corner.
Victoria picks up what she needs to make a delicious salad before heading over to the frozen section, mildly curious as to any deals that may be on offer. A man is standing studying the freezer, a man she's only seen before a couple of hours ago. She smiles warmly, goes over and taps him on the shoulder.
"Tim? Hi. Victoria. From the party this afternoon?"
Instant recognition on his face. He smiles back, takes her hand, shakes it lightly. "Nice to see you. Great minds think alike, huh?"
"I guess so," she laughs. "Found anything interesting?"
"Well, don't keep it to yourself."
He chuckles. "If you're into pepperoni pizza you're going to be very happy with what they've got here."
"I was hoping for some kind of deal on ice cream, actually."
Tim inhales slightly. "Don't shoot the messenger, but..."
"Oh god, don't tell me it's all sold out?"
"Looks like it. Sorry."
"What are you apologising for? Not your fault, unless you ate it all yourself."
"No," Tim laughs. "I don't think I've got quite the stamina for that."
There is so much laughter in his voice; his eyes sparkle. It seems almost impossible to Victoria that they should have experienced such sadness as he has in his lifetime. What pushes him forward everyday? She couldn't bear to lose Julian, not when their life together is still really only starting.
"Listen, I hope you were okay this afternoon," she says now, meaning it. "I thought it was so unfair that you guys had to leave."
Tim shrugs. "I'm getting more and more used to it, to tell you the truth," he replies. "Nick is a bit of a handful. His mother always was better at controlling him than I ever can. It's not his fault, really. He just misses her. He reckons that acting up the way he does will, well...bring her back."
A moment of sadness; he's let his guard down for just a second. Victoria sees the real him. It's heartbreaking. Lightly, her hand reaches out and touches his chest. It's a sign of comfort, of compassion. He looks back at her, grateful, shields setting themselves back up, the humour returning into his eyes.
"Sorry. I didn't mean to bring you down," he apologises. "I'd better go and pay for these groceries. I left Nick with my neighbour. Not sure if she'll want to look after him again when I get back. Depends on how much trouble he's caused."
Victoria nods. An idea springs to life in her brain. Of course: why not? "Listen, what are you and Nick doing tomorrow afternoon?"
He shrugs. "Not much. Why?"
"I promised Kyle we'd go to the park -- you know, the big adventure play park? Just off the city centre."
"Yeah, I've passed it a couple of times."
"Why don't you and Nick come with us?" she asks. "It'll be fun. Maybe see if our boys can get along. Kyle's one of the friendliest kids I know. I mean, I'm biased, of course I am, but he could make friends with anybody. Why don't we see?"
Tim thinks about it for a moment. "Okay. Sure, yeah. Why not? Thank you. Meet you there at, what, two-thirty?"
"Perfect," Victoria beams. "It's a playdate, then."
"Cool. See you tomorrow."
"Bye, Tim. See you."
She watches him go. He seems happier now as he walks to the checkout. It's the little things in life. She learnt that years ago, when she and Julian were just starting to date. Their three month anniversary. They had just made love for the first time. He'd wanted to wait, to take things slowly, because she was his first. Incredible to believe, almost. But it wasn't the lovemaking that had thrilled her the most, strangely enough, fantastic as it had been. It was the next morning, when she was lying lazily in bed, underneath the cotton sheets, her naked body oozing satisfaction, when he came and surprised her with breakfast in bed, and the toast, two slices cut evenly, was buttered and spread with raspberry jam.
"You said raspberry was your favourite," Tim had said to her then.
It was that little touch -- that expert knowledge of something so trivial as a favourite type of food -- that made Victoria realise she was in love with this man. She wouldn't tell him for another month or so; she'd kept it away in herself, hidden like a secret which thrilled every time she'd seen him, laughed with him, touched him, kissed him. It was the little things that made us all happy.
The salad was delicious, as she had anticipated. Kyle hadn't thought so, but then to him if something wasn't deep fried then it wasn't actually food. He'd eaten a few bites before throwing a mini-tantrum. Julian had taken him to his room and, when he returns, says that their son has fallen asleep.
"We had a talk, though, about what's right and what's wrong at the dinner table. He promised he'd try some salad tomorrow."
Victoria nods. "I guess we should count ourselves lucky he doesn't do that kind of thing too often."
Julian sits down in his chair, sipping water from a half-full glass. "My boss' kid is a nightmare. One time he was brought into work because they couldn't get a sitter, and it's like a nuclear explosion in the office."
"I remember you telling me about that when you came home that day," Victoria smiles. "There was this boy this afternoon at the party causing a riot. He and his dad just moved here. The mom died a year ago apparently."