‘Jacinta, I have something to tell you. Sarah had a heart attack … she died.’
‘What! But she’s only 39.’
Sarah is, was, my cousin – older by six months. Our mums are sisters. We grew up together, as cousins do. I never considered her a close friend, but it had been thirty-nine years of contact, of witnessing the paths of each other’s lives.
It was my aunt’s birthday, so we were at Sarah’s house for a family do. Sarah and I walked to the milk bar.
‘I kissed a boy last week,’ I brag.
‘Really! What was it like?’
‘It was ok. I guess it’ll get better the more I do it.’ I was showing off. ‘Have you kissed a boy yet?’
Her cheeks flush, and then I feel bad.
‘That’s ok. It actually wasn’t that good. I actually don’t like him that much, I just wanted to get it done. He kept sticking his tongue in my mouth,’ I shiver.
Sarah has a combined look of shock and awe on her face. I can’t imagine her kissing a boy down at the shops after school. We wouldn’t hang out with the same friends if we were at school together, but I like that I don’t have to pretend to be someone else around her.
I throw my arm over her shoulder, ‘Let’s go hypo on Wizz Fizz.’
Sarah died while shopping at the supermarket. She lay there, a hand clutching at her heart, with an expression of sadness rather than surprise.
She left the proceeds of her house to a friend of hers and to me. I was surprised to have been left anything at all, and sad – obviously I had meant more to her than she had to me. Her friend allowed us to buy her share of the house. We were going to keep it as a holiday house for ourselves and partially as a holiday let.
Moonahs and tea-trees grew all around the house, they were wild and messy things, harbouring spiders and grubs, and were grown into fantastical contortions. They grew and collapsed and grew again, creeping and reaching. There would be a clearer view of the water if we chopped them down, but I couldn’t do that, as Sarah had had a particular affection for them.
I realise I do have mixed feelings about the house. It is such a lovely place, yet uncomfortable to be constantly reminded of Sarah’s life ended way to soon – though I’m certain she would have been happy that we kept it. My uncle maybe not so much. I suspect that he was annoyed that she had bequeathed so much to me. When I informed him that we were keeping her house, his gruff response was, ‘How can you afford to do that! I don’t know how you’ll enjoy being in the house, it’ll just constantly remind you of her loss.’
It was a bit unnecessarily rude I thought, but he’d just lost his daughter, so I let it go.
My uncle had never approved of me though, and when I was young, I had loved to push his buttons.
We were at the park near my house, and I was smoking a cigarette. I turned the butt of the lit cigarette toward her. Sarah shook her head.
‘You sure?’ I say with a friendly tease. ‘Go on. Feel the thrill of doing something you are not supposed to. They won’t know. It’s menthol, it’s harder to detect.’
She looks at me as if in pain, torn.
‘I’ll have guilt written all over my face.’
‘What’s he going to do anyway?’
He is always telling my parents that Sarah is a high achiever and that she is going to be a lawyer one day.
‘I’m worried about him smelling it on you even.’
I pulled out a packet of mints and shook them. ‘And I’ll wash my hands.’
Sarah put her lips to the end of the cigarette as if it is the burning end, barely touching it and takes a short in-breath and coughs it out immediately.
‘At least now you can say you’ve smoked a cigarette.’ I finish the cigarette.
‘Let’s climb the tree,’ I say. It’s something I wouldn’t do with my other friends – at our age it isn’t cool.
I climb as high as I can.
‘Careful,’ she says, ‘that branch might snap.’
‘I want to get to the top,’ I shout.
But the branch snaps, and I crash through the brittle tea tree thatch and get all scratched up.
When we are back on the ground ‘Urgh look! A used dinger.’ I point it out under the tree.
Sarah glances at it. ‘Oh.’
When we get back to the house, my uncle asks suspiciously of me, ‘What have you girls been up to?’
‘Selling drugs to primary school children,’ I reply.
Mum whacks me across the arm. ‘Jacinta!’
It was after Darren and I had the kids that we began to stay on a more regular basis with Sarah. She would offer to baby sit, and she’d send Darren and I off on date nights or date days. I could tell she loved being an aunt. I never asked her if she had hoped to have children of her own. I didn’t want to point out something that might be a disappointment in her life. Instead I’d said something like: ‘There are pros and cons to everything,’ and, ‘All this hard work and they’ll probably just move away when they’re older anyway. Only call us for birthdays and Christmas.’
The children really liked her. Jess said to me once, ‘She’s like Father Christmas, she’s big and jolly and gives the best cuddles.’ (Jess loves Christmas.)
I cringed. ‘Yes, she is happy and generous like Father Christmas.’
Sarah would make up entertaining stories for them about the possums that lived in the trees about the house, with the occasional pixie thrown in for good measure, and they would go out to the trees and look for the possum nests and imagine their own stories.
One summer when we were visiting, before Jess had even been born, Sarah complemented my bathers and then said how much she hated buying bathers.
She had been sitting there on the sand in t-shirt and shorts.
‘Let’s go together and find you a pair,’ I say.
‘Oh, no, it’s ok.’
‘I see lots of full-figured women in bathers down here, showing off their sexy curves.’
‘It’ll be my Christmas present to you – for looking after Noah. Well, if you don’t, I’m going to get a voucher for you anyway then.’
‘I can afford to buy myself a pair.’
‘Yes, but will you?’
‘Come on,’ I coax. ‘Please.’
At the store she tries on many pairs, but then:
‘You look amazing. They give your boobs good shape. They accentuate your waist. They’ve kind of got this burlesque look to them. You look hot!’
She looks at the price tag, ‘Oh God, they’re expensive, I can’t let you pay for that,’ she exclaims.
‘Put in a little bit if it makes you feel better, but we must get them.’
To be honest, I didn’t dwell on her unless I was staying at her house, but then, as I was sitting on the deck with the sunlight twinkling on the water in the distance between the trees and I could see the clouds stretching far across the bay all the way to the other side, my Uncle’s words came back to haunt me and I did feel guilty to be there enjoying it when she no longer could.
My reverie was interrupted by Noah, ‘I think this tree is sick,’ he called up to me.
He was poking at the trunk of one of the moonahs. I could see the weeping stream of sap down its side from where I was sitting.
The following weekend, through the kitchen window I could see Noah lifting up his little sister to look at the tree where the sap was weeping out of it. They were trampling on the agapanthus and geranium growing wildly around the base of its trunk. I went outside.
They were poking and touching the wound in the tree.
‘What are you doing, Noah?’
‘Something is coming out of the tree.’
I wandered down expecting to see some sort of insect or grub.
There was something coming out, but it was a rusty looking ornamental flourish-shaped thing, sticking out about one centimetre from the weeping wound.
‘Urgh. Was it there last week?’ I asked.
‘No,’ and Noah grabbed it and tried to give it a twist and tug.
‘Don’t break it. Let’s see what happens. It’s like it’s … it’s pushing out a splinter.’
I looked at the tree; it was neither young, nor old, and looked healthy in all other ways.
I invited Sarah to my eighteenth birthday party and told her it could be like a joint one between us because she hadn’t had one herself. She had always been discouraged from things considered frivolous. To me, a good party was essential.
That year Sarah went off to university and I mucked around in a hospitality course at TAFE. I was dreaming of spending the following year working and surfing my way up the east coast.
I only caught up with her once that year as she was stressed and concentrating on her law studies. I kept telling her, ‘You’re young, you need to relax and have fun while you can.’
‘I do, I do,’ she would tell me, but I didn’t believe her.
And then I was off travelling the east coast for some time.
I returned home for Christmas and was expecting to see Sarah there for the lunch, but she wasn’t. Her stupid dad was though. I avoid talking to him because he has too small teeth; it’s like his baby teeth have never fallen out, and the look of them always freaks me out. I asked my aunt instead.
‘She’s away with uni friends,’ she replies, but I catch her glance towards my uncle.
‘I haven’t seen her for ages,’ I say.
My uncle was suddenly beside me.
‘That’s because she’s focused on her future.’
‘It’s healthy to have some time out,’ I counter.
‘She’s not like you, Jacinta. Not everyone wants to flit around like a butterfly.’
‘When are you off again,’ he demands.
After that I headed overseas on what I describe as my European backpacking odyssey.
I didn’t catch up with her during that time at all, I even forgot to give her a call.
When I finally returned Mum told me that Sarah didn’t end up completing her law degree because she had been sick. ‘It was all a little vague,’ she said, ‘I think there is more to the story, but anyway. Boy, did he carry on about it; I don’t know why my sister puts up with him.’
On our next visit to Dromana, moments after arriving, the children and I went down to look at the moonah. The tree had pushed whatever it was further out – a full fancy metal flourish at the end of a metal stem, and what was just beginning to be revealed was perhaps the tooth of a key. We all stared at it in amazement, even Darren. It was still solidly stuck though, so we had to continue to wait patiently. The children made the tree a cup of tea because they said that’s what I liked when I was sick, and poured it into the soil at its base. They then wrapped an old blanket around the bottom of its trunk for comfort.
Sarah phoned me.
‘Hi Jaz, it’s Sarah. You’re back!’
‘I am. I’m so glad you called. It’s been years – we should catch up.’
I meet her at her apartment, and I can’t help but notice that she had gained a significant amount of weight since I saw her last.
‘You look fantastic,’ I say to her.
‘No, I don’t. I’m a bit heavier than when I saw you last.’
‘Eh, we all do as we get older,’ I say waving it away with a hand. ‘It’s your haircut. It suits you so much. I love it.’
‘We haven’t booked so we mightn’t get a table, and the parking is a nightmare around the restaurants,’ she says, so we order in.
Our food arrives and we are comfy on her couch.
‘So, what are you doing for work?’ I ask her.
‘I’m just a legal secretary now.’
‘What do you mean, just! That’s a bloody good job.’
‘Well, I was supposed to be a lawyer.’
I shrug my shoulders, ‘Is that what you wanted though?’
She shakes her head.
‘How did your dad handle that?’
‘He carried on, of course.’
‘God, he’s such a dick.’
Sarah paused for half a sec, and then laughs. ‘Maybe you’re right.’
‘Not maybe,’ I mutter.
‘Tell me about your backpacking odyssey.’
In the end, her sides are aching from laughter.
‘I’m so jealous. You’re so much braver than I am. I’d be too scared to go off on my own like that.’
‘Yeah, I’ve survived my youth despite my stupidity.’
Noah wiggled the key loose of the tree and its weeping subsided. We washed it up and it sat on the kitchen windowsill while we puzzled over it.
The kids had some interesting theories. Jess thought a fairy lived in the tree. Noah thought the key unlocked a portal to another realm. Darren thought that key must have been under the tree when it first grew up.
‘It has to have a logical explanation,’ he said as if I was going to believe the kids.
As the kids were running around the backyard looking for possible keyholes, it dawned on me where I’d seen a lock that might take such a key.
There was an elaborate porcelain and bronze, egg-shaped trinket box sitting on a shelf in the spare room. It had belonged to Sarah.
When I’d first found it, I could see that it was nice, but not really my style, so I’d left it there until I decided what I wanted to do with it. It had a keyhole, and was locked, but there had been no key to go with it. I’d picked up the egg and given it a gentle shake to see if anything was in there but had felt nothing. It had appeared too delicate to attempt to pry open.
But now, the key fitted the lock.
When Darren met Sarah for the first time, he said, ‘So you must have some embarrassing stories to tell about Jacinta from your childhood.’ (He knows me well.)
‘Her secrets are safe with me.’
‘I’ve probably heard them all anyway – she has no shame,’ he said with a smile.
After Sarah bought the house in Dromana, she invited us to come down and stay with her.
‘I know it’s not very far from where I grew up, but it has the feel of a long way away. Like Cornwall, I like to imagine, with all its cloud and rolling hills,’ she explained.
I never knew her to be in a relationship. She may have dated people along the way that I didn’t know about.
‘I’ve heard success stories from people who’ve met on dating websites. It’s an OK way to meet people,’ I did suggest one time.
‘I don’t think I could, Jaz. I’ll just wait to meet someone face to face.’
‘Well, it will be face to face when you hook up,’ I encouraged.
But I left it at that, after all, I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable by going on about it. If she needed to talk about it, I’m sure she would.
I did wonder if she was lonely though, but I was too much of a coward to actually ask her. Instead, I focused on the positive things – all the great weekends we had when we were there, movie nights and board games in winter, and drinks on the sand on summer evenings.
After all those years of casual visits, I guess a sense of connection did creep in, even to the place itself.
A tingle went down my spine; I knew something unusual was happening. I folded the lid of the egg back and it revealed something knitted inside. Two tiny booties. I picked them up like they were the wings of butterflies. The wool was soft but worn and fluffed as though they had been picked up and held and rubbed between fingers many times, over many years.
There was something else at the bottom of the egg. A tiny plastic identity band. My breath caught in my throat. I read: Baby Jensen. 1996. Nineteen years ago – Sarah would have been twenty and at university. My heart suddenly laboured with the realisation that she had felt it necessary to lock away what had obviously been so precious to her. What reason could that have been for – shame? Why wouldn’t she have confided in me?
I wondered about the key, lost in the garden.
It was hard to believe she would accidentally lose in the garden, that which was the key to a piece of her soul.
I paused on all that could never be answered.
I put the delicate vestiges back inside the egg, left it unlocked and placed the key next to it, and sensed a hole in the past that the truth had fallen through. I had known her for so long yet still hadn’t really known her.