Always Home Ch. 01byDkling©
1. Moving in. A dance. An embrace.
Things suddenly got bad for us after Dad died. For us, the spoiled Flinders kids, who'd never had it bad in our entire lives. But Dad died, and he left all of his stuff to some floozy we'd never heard of, and all we three had was the parts of Mum's estate that her will had bequeathed specifically to us.
And some inheritance that was. A few bucks, her personal effects, which Dad had never bothered to get rid of, and a shoebox of a house out on a development estate somewhere, which Mum had bought as an investment a few years before she died.
We were served notice: the floozy wanted her house. Her house? I would've grabbed that process server and strangled the life out of him if it hadn't been for Elsa. She stopped me, held me back. In that calm way of hers, she took the eviction notice and thanked the man for his time.
I turned and ran for my room. Rage had a hold on me, but I knew that it wouldn't be much longer before it turned to tears. And I didn't want anyone to see.
Then there was a knock at my door. I put a grim choke on the emerging sobs and croaked, "Come in."
It was Elsa, papers still in hand. She walked in, a weary slump to her shoulders that it pained me to see. She sat down on the bed, next to where I lay prone, head on the pillow.
"We have thirty days," she said. "Most of the furniture and fittings have to stay here. We... we get to keep our personal effects -- clothes and that sort of thing -- and anything Dad expressly gave us as gifts..."
"Better start packing then," I choked. "That last bit alone is going to take weeks. Dad, always so generous with his 'darling kids'..."
I felt her hand on my shoulder then. "Don't do this, Ger, please. I need you right now. We've got to put a brave face on this for Marnie. She's going to take it badly, I just know..."
"And you think I'm not?" I twisted over, prepared to deliver something biting and scathing, to hurt her. And stopped at the tears running down her face. She didn't need me to hurt her. Dad already had.
"Please, Ger," she whispered. "I can't do this alone."
I sat up, then, and did something I hadn't done in years. I hugged her, hard. Tentatively, her hands came up to pat my back. She laid her head on my shoulder. Her body started shaking, but I didn't hear any crying. She wouldn't let herself slip that far. Big sis Elsa, always looking out for us. But now -- now who was going to look out for her?
Arms around her, my cheek nestled against the fabric of her blouse, I cried for her.
* * *
A few weeks later, we left the place we'd called home for so many years. The sum of our belongings barely took up the back of a single moving van: suitcases of clothes; my computer; a couple of mini hi-fis; a pair of bedside tables we were sure Dad's floozy wouldn't miss; random desks and chests of drawers and chairs, parts of our personal décor; and the old trunk of Mum's that had been kept in the basement.
Marnie was quiet and sullen as we climbed into Elsa's sedan and began the long drive to the new Chez Flinders. Despite anything and everything Elsa and I had said about having an adventure and leaving bad memories behind us, she knew just as well as we did that we'd been dispossessed. Thrown out. Dumped onto the street.
She'd have to change schools; we couldn't afford the tuition for the private school she used to attend. I'd seen Elsa up late at nights, head in hands, poring over documents and drawing up budgets. I'd seen her crumple and cry -- my big sister Elsa, always so steadfast, always so blightedly cheerful. In the light of the little desk lamp in Dad's study, she sat there and she tried to plan a future for us. I wanted to help her, I wanted to help so much -- but what could I do?
Rent wasn't a problem. Rates... well, if we invested what we had, and got decent returns, we might manage to scrape by for a little while. I was prepared to quit uni and get a full time job if I had to -- and from what I'd seen of Elsa's oft-revised plans, it seemed likely that was the only way we'd manage to survive.
The drive to our new home was silent, and bleak. In the back seat, Marnie sat and stared out the window as everything familiar passed by, as we entered a new world.
* * *
It took barely an hour for the moving people to get everything into our new home. Elsa seemed to have had everything planned; she'd driven out here a few times in the preceding weeks to take stock of the situation. It turned out she'd also done a little judicious spending of our nest egg, so when the removalists had finished setting everything up where we wanted it, the tiny space looked almost... filled. Almost home.
We sat in the forest of unopened boxes, on mismatched chairs, and tried to acclimatise. This was it; this was going to be home for God only knew how long.
The front door opened onto a fairly generous living space, with a kitchen tucked into the corner. A rented fridge hummed quietly in its nook, next to the gas cooktop and oven, and the sink. Elsa had bought a simple dining room set: a small table and four chairs. The cupboards were well stocked with basic grocery items; a new crockery set had been unpacked, washed and set out to dry.
We'd put Elsa's TV on a stand in the living room, opposite the squishy but comfortable-looking couch. Marnie's bookcase had been volunteered as the new communal book storage area; its shelves looked a bit bare at the moment, but we had the means to change that, in the boxes we were so zealously guarding.
"Well," Elsa said, after a moment. "Welcome home, guys."
"Thanks," I said, not quite managing to keep the sarcasm out of my voice. Then, in a softer tone, "You've done a real good job getting it ready, sis. It looks a lot better than I thought it would. I mean, I thought we'd be sitting on cardboard boxes and eating out of tins, or something."
"I'm trying to teach myself how to cook," she said, with a little laugh. "I've got a stack of cookbooks somewhere in one of these boxes; and we'll all have to get used to fending for ourselves, and looking out for each other, or we're going to starve. I get the feeling life is going to be a little topsy-turvy for a while."
"We'll survive," I told her, with a side glance at Marnie, who still hadn't said anything. "So, what other surprises does this grand old house have for us?"
"Well, the bathroom's in there -- one drawer each for toiletries and stuff; Marnie and I'll keep personal items in our rooms. There's a shower, bath, and a washing machine I rented. Marnie's room is down at the end of the hall. The master bedroom is to the right."
"Fine, so that's where you're sleeping," I said. "What about me?"
She looked a little uncomfortable. "Well, that's the problem. This house isn't that big, really. There's only two bedrooms. You can share the master bedroom with me, if you like; there's room for two beds if we squeeze. Or I'll sleep out here on the couch, if you don't mind me cluttering up your room with a bit of my junk..."
For a second, something hard and painful threatened to grab my heart through the growing aura of resentment. She'd tried so hard, poor Elsie, she'd tried so bloody hard and all I wanted to do was complain.
"It's all right," I heard myself saying. "You're big sis, right? I can rough it out here, if you don't mind sharing some closet space with me."
Her eyes met mine, a profound look of gratitude lurking in their brown depths. Embarrassed, I looked away.
Elsa must have felt my awkwardness, because she abruptly changed the subject. "Come on, Marnie, let's get your stuff into your room, shall we?"
Marnie just stared at the floor.
"Go on, Marnie," I said, coaxingly. "Or do you want to let me have it?"
"Don't want the room!" she snapped. "I don't want this lousy house, and I don't want to have to go to any fucking new school either! I want my home! Our home, Ger! You said we could fight that bitch. Take her to court, do something! Anything! Oh God Ger I just wanna go home!"
"Marnie," Elsa said gently, as Marnie raised her hands to her eyes, bowing her head. "Marnie, yes, we could have fought her. And the legal fees could have bankrupted us, and we could still have lost. I wasn't willing to gamble what little we had on something we might never win. This way, we're together. We have a home. Maybe not much of a home yet, but it's a start, right? I... I'm doing my best, Marn. I'm trying to help. Please?"
"Home, Elsie," Marnie sobbed. "Our friends, our things. What's this place now, to us?"
I moved forward, completing the circle. The three of us. Elsa's arms around Marnie, and my hands on Elsa's shoulder, on Marnie's arm. "It's us, Marn. This place is us. Or at least it's going to be, once we get settled in. The best thing to do now is start. Go on, start unpacking. Don't think of it as a welcome home. Think of it as a start to us."
Wonder of wonders, the little homily seemed to work. Marnie shook herself out of her fetal position, and looked up. There was a brave little quirk to her lip that heartened me beyond anything else.
"All right, Ger," she said, a little squeakily. "I'll make a start to us. Just promise me I won't have to eat Elsa's cooking."
I laughed. "We'll order in the first few nights."
Elsa mock-glared at me, and Marnie laughed. "Sounds good, Ger. Where... which ones of these are mine?"
Then, as Marnie started lugging the first of her heavy boxes down the hall, Elsa just turned to me, with another look in her eyes that made my heart feel like a rock in my chest.
"Thank you, Ger," she said, softly. "You're a wonderful, wonderful brother. I... I love you so m—"
"Shhh," I said, as she choked on a sob. "You're big sis, remember? You have to be strong. I'm first brother. I have to make smartass comments and sit around on my butt all day."
"Then you're not going to be a very good first brother," she mumbled. "Not for a while, at least."
I reached out and touched her hand. "It's us, Elsie. I don't care if I never get to be a good first brother again. Just so long as there's still an us."
Her face crinkled up. "Oh, Ger, don't. Don't be so..." Then she stopped, turned around to grab one of the boxes, and started heaving it down the hall to Marnie's room.
* * *
Dinner was pizza from a local restaurant that'd left a flier in our letterbox. The crust was saggy from too much cheese, and the delivery girl hadn't made their thirty minute deadline, but it didn't matter. We lit candles and sat at Elsa's dinner table. She'd spread out an old tablecloth, and set out a flower in a frosted glass vase, and played the host.
She drank lemon squash while Marnie and I chugged down glasses of Coke. We laughed too hard when Marnie suggested industrial uses for the clotted mozzarella on the pizza. I nearly fell off my chair when Elsa mock-seriously reprimanded Marn for breaching etiquette and talking about work at the table. That led to a long and ludicrously elaborate unfolding scenario wherein the Flinders kids were the industrial strength cheese barons of the global construction industry. We held cheese conferences on all that was new in industrial strength cheese, and unveiled stunning innovations in global cheese technology.
By the time the meal was over, I'd become Lord Cheese of Flinders, Marnie was Ms Lady Cheese of Northingham, and Elsa was the Royal Baroness of Gouda. Ms Lady Cheese excused herself and vanished to her room, taking the phone with her. Shortly after, loud music came pounding out from behind her door, making me glad I hadn't decided to share a room with her and guaranteeing that we wouldn't see her again all night.
The baroness and I cleaned up. I crumpled the pizza boxes and Her Grace washed the dishes. There was a pleased little half-smile on her face.
"Well, there wasn't any holy water, but at least the dishes got christened with the next best thing," I said, leaning back against the counter, watching her finish up.
"Industrial grade mozzarella?" she asked, looking up at me. There was a little smudge of suds on her face, and I resisted a sudden irrational urge to kiss them away.
"Well, why not? It's waterproof to thirty metres, impervious to nuclear missile fire and doesn't go greasy when you grill it. What more could any crockery set want?"
She laughed. "Actually, some music would be nice."
"Whatever her ladyship of Cheese wants." I flicked on the mini stereo, which had been Elsa's as well, in our pre-Cheese empire days. It was tuned to an easy listening station that she liked, playing something mellow. Standing there, up to her elbows in suds, in the warm glow of the overhead kitchen light, she seemed... dancewithable.
I stepped up to her, and offered her my arm. "May I have this dance?"
"Why, my lord," she giggled, "gladly would I dance with thee, but I'm afraid the dishes will ne'er be clean if I accept thy offer."
"A pox on the dishes!" I declared, taking her elbow and drawing her out onto the tiled floor. "This dance floor needs christening too."
"Then we'd better order another pizza," she suggested, before I drew her closer and started swaying to the rhythm of the radio.
* * *
It felt as if I were fourteen again, about to head out to my first formal. I had no idea how to dance, but I'd managed to keep it a terrible, shameful secret. I knew I was going to blow it, though, as soon as I stepped out onto the dance floor. There was a girl I had my eye on, Gloria Couster. She was going to be there.
About an hour before we were due to leave for the dance, though, Elsa called me into her room. There was no point hiding it from her: she knew. And so she'd put on a CD, taken my hands, and taught me to slow dance. At first we stuttered around her floorspace, with me mortified and her laughing as I stepped on her shoes, but then, slowly, we began to coast, and then to glide.
After a while I forgot who I was with, forgot the interlacing of her fingers with mine or my hand on the small of her back. I was just dancing, for the first time in my life, and falling in love with it. Thoughts of Gloria became somehow secondary. (Which, as it turned out, was actually all for the best.)
But there was a moment, towards the end, when I looked up at Elsa, and she looked down at me and smiled. I was fourteen, and she was twenty-two -- an entire world away. But in that moment I felt a connection to her: not just my big sister anymore, but a friend.
The music ended, and she let me go. "You'd better head off now," she said, looking at the clock. "Go on; knock 'em dead." And she smiled.
The night didn't go at all as I'd planned. I never got the chance to ask Gloria to dance, much less shimmy cheek-to-cheek with her. She was monopolised by one debonair teen after another: they were wearing tuxes, for God's sake! I sat most of the numbers out, drinking punch and glumly watching the dancers making their mostly clumsy way around the dance floor.
I danced with a couple of girls I knew, and eventually had a decent time, but the magic wasn't there with them. As I'd been sure it would have been with Gloria, if I'd ever had the opportunity to test it out.
Mum picked me up at eleven, a crestfallen young gentleman. Wisely, she chose to say nothing. Mum knew the best policy with me was non-intervention. I hated being put on the spot. Hated having to try to say things before I knew the right words to use. We'd talk about it eventually. Just not yet.
Later that night, though, Elsie came to find out what had happened. She liked keeping up on things, my things, as if somehow being a sister meant more to her than just being a slightly annoying older person who kept cramping my style.
She was dressed in her nightrobe, her brown hair shorter then, but her eyes just as bright. I admitted the truth to her, how I'd never even gotten close to dancing with her, and she sighed. For a moment, it seemed, she shared my depression. Empathy from a sister? Who'd ever heard of such a thing?
"Well," she said, after a moment, "if you ever want to dance again, there'll always be me."
I didn't laugh, didn't shrug it off. I'd been terribly disappointed. Not hurt, not wounded, but just let down. It was a hard thing for a teenager to take, and I think she knew that.
"Thanks, Elsie," I mumbled. It was meant as a good night, but of course she didn't take it that way. Sympathy, empathy -- yes, maybe. Obligingness? Not on your life!
"You did dance, though, right?" she asked. "Got some practice in?"
"Yeah, that's right," I said.
She stood up, and held her hands out to me. "Show me."
"Knock it off, Elsie," I grumbled. "I don't need you poking fun at—"
"Gerald Alexander Flinders," she said, in a tone exactly like Mum's. "A gentleman never refuses a lady's invitation to dance."
"Yeah? But what if I'm not a gentleman?"
She smiled. "Then do it for the practice."
"Right. How often do you expect me to practise?"
Reaching down, she took my hands, and pulled me up. "Every chance you get," she insisted. "Now, dance with me. I asked you nicely."
So I took her hands, and moved closer to her, and we danced to nothing for a while. We drifted across the carpet; there was something comforting about her, something about the soft warmth of her robe that disarmed me. We hugged, and kept dancing, doing the steps in miniature. I rested my head on her blue-robed shoulder. Eventually, the tears did come. Pointless, meaningless things. But Elsa didn't seem to mind.
* * *
Slow fade back to the kitchen where Elsa and I were still dancing. For three or four years we'd danced together at Christmas and birthday parties, to the point where it didn't seem strange to us or anyone else. It'd been a few years since I'd asked her (a young man's sensibilities being what they were), but it still seemed as natural as it'd ever been.
Now, though, we were alone. And I had to admit that I'd missed this. Sure, time had changed some things. I was taller than her now, though not by much, and my frame was larger than hers. I'd been what you might call a late bloomer.
"Thank you for... making it easier, today," she murmured, letting her eyes close, arms draped over my shoulders as we moved together. "I just thought... Marn would have it easier by herself. You know, her own space."
"Besides, she's a growing girl," I said. "I know girls need their secrets."
She pulled back a little to look at me, amused. "And I don't?"
"Elsie, you're not a growing girl, you're a spinster."
"Well, that hurts," she remarked. I chuckled.
"For a creaky old spinster, though, you still dance as well as I ever remember." Then, seeing something in her face that told me I'd gone too far, I moved closer again, holding her in what I hoped could be taken as an apologetic manner. "Elsie, I'm sorry."
She mumbled something, eyes downcast.
"I said don't worry. You're right, maybe. Maybe that's just Elsie: old and plain and never—" She drew in a breath. "I don't want to dance anymore, Ger."
"No," I said, tightening my grip on her as she tried to draw away. "We're not done practising yet."
"Don't you understand?" she whispered, her expression bleak. "We're not practising anymore, Ger. This is real life. This is... this is all we have left."
"You're not plain," I insisted. "You're not old." She didn't respond, just kept dancing with me, unwilling to struggle any further. But equally unwilling to let me draw her back, it seemed. I held onto her, unable to think. I started to hum, aimlessly, along with the music. Then the words just seemed to swim back to me: "Wise men say only fools rush in, but I can't help falling in love with you..."