Linda Brooks: Scarlett doesn't live here anymore (an excerpt)
Sunday, April 24, 2011
Evelyn Aston threw her suitcase onto the scales at the check in desk at Perth airport. She was catching the 6.00 am Qantas flight to Sydney. She wrapped a scarf around her neck, securing it under the heavy weight of her hair at the nape. With her long skirt and drab blouse she must look like a member of a cult. Maybe she’d overdone it. Her attempts to fade into the background might actually make her conspicuous. But she didn’t have much choice, she’d dyed her hair back to its original mousy brown making her less of ‘Eva’ the socialite and closer to her younger self. Back when she was safe. Before wealth and corporate success. Before James.
She felt a pang of apprehension. Not long now. Soon she’d be on the plane back to the Eastern States. Home free; away from James. Even now, she expected a heavy hand on her shoulder. Willing herself to relax she drew in a measured breath.
The attendant waved her through to the waiting area. She could see the 747 through the huge glass windows. Instinctively she sat in the farthest corner of the waiting area so that she could observe, without being seen. She opened a magazine as a shield. Nervously tucking the scarf tighter, she realised there was so little of ‘Eva’ in her appearance. She would hardly be recognized. But there was always a chance she might run into one of their business associates. They travelled at all hours of the day and night. She couldn’t bear to fail now.
Evelyn couldn’t remember when she had been able to move freely through the world. That world before James. Constantly looking over her shoulder was so deeply ingrained it was second nature.
They were ushered onto the plane. Only when she sank into her seat did she allow herself to relax. She was safe. For the time being. Not long now. She would melt into the throng in Sydney, then she could choose a small town when she arrived. God knows how. She couldn’t return to Tasmania. That much was sure.
‘Half a plan is better than no plan,’ she muttered, sinking into her seat.
‘Did you say something?’ asked the businessman beside her.
‘Oh dear, I was thinking aloud. I hate it when I do that,’ she answered.
‘Only true geniuses talk to themselves, you know.’
‘And there was me, thinking it was the other way around.’
‘Things are never the other way around.’
‘Are you related to Dr Suess, by any chance?’ she asked, annoyed that she had broken her rule not to converse with anyone. But this man’s eyes were more amused than provoking, and it wasn’t a good idea to be too paranoid.
‘I wish,’ he said, laughing.
The stewards had begun the usual emergency spiel. The man opened a newspaper, deftly folding it. Clever trick that, she’d have to try it sometime. Eve closed her eyes, willing meditation to take her to another place, so she would get through the take-off. Once she was in the air, she was okay. It was just the irrationality of the sheer weight of metal thrusting upwards that terrified her. When in the air she pretended she was on a bus. Not that she had been on a bus in the last fifteen years. Ironically she had spent most of her travel time on planes. And the fear hadn’t dimmed in all that time.
The glide down the runway was taking forever. Was the damn plane going to drive all the way to Sydney? Picture my happy place, she thought. What is that mantra I learned?
‘Oh crap!’ she said as she gripped the armrest with iron fingers.
‘Ouch!’ muttered the man beside her. ‘When did you win your last arm-wrestling competition?’
Oh dear! So that was why the armrest seemed softer than usual.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she muttered, abashed.
After the plane lifted off, monotony settled in. This was the time Eve had set aside for ‘making plans’, but her worrying just took her in frustrating circles. Every thought path had her arriving back at the ‘where’ she would live. Her meticulous planning over the last months had sorted her separate finances and monetary independence. James would look for her, perhaps even taking time out from his mistress. However, the letter she left should keep him away from sniffing after her money.
Would it be hard to become ordinary old Evelyn Aston. She’d already decided to go back to a secretarial job. That had put her through Uni. The work shouldn’t be too hard. But the change, how would she cope with that? Mentally tallying up the pros and cons of her lifestyle, Eve realised there would be very little she missed. Certainly not the jet-setting. And most definitely, not the parties.
Three hours later she gave up trying to solve the problem of her new location. Sydney would bring some clue. She was glad she was in the window seat. It suited her to appear to be lost in the horizon. She’d chosen it to avoid conversation with her fellow passengers. It didn’t seem necessary, because after their initial few words, the man beside her had become engrossed in a crossword. It seemed incongruous for a man in a suit to be scribbling a crossword, instead of poring over the obligatory corporate laptop.
The wine was relaxing her limbs. The second glass proved even more effective. But that damn scarf was sticking out at a crazy angle, impeding the path of the wine glass to her lips.
‘You could take it off.’
Eve jumped in alarm.
‘I meant the scarf.’
Eve looked at the man. seeing no flirting overtone in his face, even though it was a little blurry, she decided he was harmless. She liked harmless men. This one had unruly chestnut hair. Not a control freak then. In her experience control freaks did not have unruly hair that curled over their collars. She leaned in a little closer so that his face came back into focus. It was so annoying when people did that – got fuzzy on you.
The plane dropped a thousand feet and Eve’s head hit the stranger’s chest. As she pulled back, the scarf became stuck on the pink ribbon badge on his suit, and stayed there. Eve sat straight in her seat and aimed for composure. She missed. The man smiled as he looked at the scarf, now hanging on his chest.
‘Humph.’ She tried to focus her gaze and think of something clever to say.
‘You’re fuzzy,’ she mumbled.
‘You’re messy,’ he replied. ‘But in a good way,’ he added quickly.
‘I’m never messy. It’s not allowed. James says it’s unprofessional. Anything less than perfection is not shuitable.’ She waggled her finger. Oh rats, I’m slurring, she thought. The man didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps he didn’t aspire to perfection.
‘Your hair looks wonderful,’ he said. James must be crazy, he thought.
‘D’you think so?’ Leaning in conspiratorially, Eve whispered, ‘I’m never going to be perfect again.’
‘Glad to hear it. I could happily join as founding member for that club.’
‘You’re welcome. I’ll make you CEO.’
‘You haven’t heard the job description.’
‘Oh, I think ‘imperfect’ covers it nicely. I’m sure I can manage that lofty standard.’
‘I feel funny.’
‘You might be a little tipsy. You don’t normally drink do you?’
‘Never...I’m not myself, you know.’
‘Really, who are you?’
‘Well, I am myself, obviously. But I’m not the self I was when I got on this thing.’ Eve waved the wine glass perilously.
‘May I?’ asked the man, taking the glass.
‘You don’t have to worry. It’s plastic. It’s not itself either.’
‘So this club...’ The man was perplexed. ‘...It’s the We’re Imperfect Somebody Else club.’
‘Hmmm. Then it’s the WISE Club.’
‘Ooh, you are...’
Eve didn’t finish. The Captain’s calm voice came clearly over the intercom.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I have to advise you that Sydney airport is closed due to torrential rain and storms. Flooding has cut transport to the airport. This means that we have been redirected to Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. Qantas wishes to apologise for any inconvenience, but he safety of our passengers is uppermost. When you arrive in Melbourne you will be given assistance with transport and accommodation if necessary. We would like to reassure you every attempt will be made to ensure your comfort. We anticipate that the stay-over in Melbourne will be no longer than 24 hours. We expect to land in Melbourne at 1030 hours. Thank you for your patience.’
Eve shivered. She would have to adjust her thoughts. Thoughts that were muddled by the wine. Castigating herself for drinking at all, she placed the half filled wine glass on the drop down table. It was swiftly removed by a hostess who informed her that tables and seat belts must be secured during turbulence. Even was chagrined, and fast becoming stone cold sober.
What a bloody nuisance. She knew Sydney like the back of her hand. She’d studied at Uni there. Sitting upright, she pulled her scattered thoughts together. It wasn’t as if she had anyone waiting. It wasn’t as if she had a plan. And James wouldn’t look for her in Melbourne. She would have time to organise things. It didn’t really matter where she did it.
The man made a quick phone call. His words were precise and succinct. Eve wondered who he was phoning. Probably his wife, she thought as she saw the wedding ring on his finger. Must have been married a while. His call was more like a report.
Half an hour later they landed. The man efficiently plucked her carry on bag from the overhead storage when she struggled with it. Deftly, he steered both of their cases downstairs to the check in area. Sensing her embarrassment he passed her case over with a gentle, ‘Are you okay?’
Eve nodded. ‘Thank you. For everything’. With a casual tilt of his head, he was lost in the crowd.
In spite of the promise of organisation, the airport was chaotic. Backpackers, obviously used to unpredictable lives, didn’t bother to queue, but curled up on sofas. Parents were calming children. Airport staff were dealing with customers. Come complained loudly and others sighed with resignation. There were two queues, one for the airport hotel, and one for a hotel in the city. The queue for the airport hotel was horrendously long and Eve headed straight for the city hotel queue. She was relieved to find that the bus to the hotel would be outside the front doors in under half an hour, leaving just enough time to have a croissant and cappuccino. And to feel human again.
The Qantas lounge was crowded, but the service was fast. Eve found a corner table and sat down.
‘Do you mind if we join you,’ asked a tall woman. A barrel of a man stood beside her, looking slightly lost.
‘Not at all,’ said Eve.
‘I’m Brenda,’ said the woman, ‘and this is John. This change of plans has rattled him a little.’
‘I’m okay, dear,’ said the man.
‘Join the club,’ responded Eve, ‘I didn’t sleep last night and then I was silly enough to have a glass of wine just before the turbulence, which I am now seriously regretting.’
John smiled. ‘I’m glad I’m not the only one then. Feeling like a fish out of water.’
Discovering they were all waiting for the city hotel bus gave them something to chat about, and when it was time to go they travelled together.
At the hotel, Eve climbed straight into the king size bed and slept dreamlessly, waking several hours later – disorientated and ravenous. Realising she’d agreed to meet Brenda and John downstairs in the restaurant, Eve checked the time. She had ten minutes. After a quick shower she threw on the same clothes, minus the scarf, and ran for the lift.
She was surprised when she arrived to see her seatmate talking to Brenda and John.
‘This is Allan,’ said Brenda, ‘we’ve asked him to join us. Allan, this is Eve.’
‘We’ve met,’ said Eve. She accepted his outstretched hand. He shook her hand gently with warm hands. ‘We were seated next to each other on the plane.’
‘Oh, how convenient. We’re practically all old friends then. A crisis will do that though, don’t you find. One dispenses with the formalities.’
‘Bren, you’ve never been on speaking terms with any “formalities”,’ said John, the glimmer of a teasing smile on his face.
After the meal, John spied a chess board set up in the corner. ‘Do you play?’ he asked Allan.
‘Love to, but I have to warn you, I’m a mean player.’
‘Oh, you’re on, mate!’ John laughed.
Brenda watched John walk to the table. She sighed. ‘It’s so good to see him relaxed.’
‘I take it that doesn’t happen often?’
‘No. John has Post Traumatic Stress. I thought visiting his sister and her family in WA would cheer him up, but I think it only added to things.’
‘It’s slow progress. Anyway, call me Bren, all my friends do. Where are you from?’
‘Perth, but I’m relocating. Not sure where yet.’
‘You’ll work it out. You look like a capable young woman to me.’
This calm acceptance, more than any well meaning interrogation, had the effect of letting Eve open up to this lovely woman. Pouring out the angst of the past few years, leaving out the worst details, had the astonishing effect of clearing Eve’s head. It had been a long time since she had trusted someone enough to confide anything, and the relief was enormous.
‘You don’t think your ex, James was it, will file a missing person’s report?’
‘No,’ said Eve. ‘we’ve all but been living apart for 18 months. He’s been staying at the guest house. I left a note and divorce papers. He won’t do anything “official”, but that won’t stop him trying to find me. He’ll go from begging to threats, hoping to get me back. It’s worked in the past. But not this time.’
‘Good girl. That’s the spirit. Surely he’ll give up in time.’
‘Oh he will. I’m the third one he’s tried this with.’
‘What! He’s had three wives!’
‘No,’ Eve laughed bitterly. ‘I’m his second wife, but he’s had plenty of live in girlfriends. Seems to think of himself as some sort of Svengali. He’ll find another younger, prettier face to groom. Another obsession. I’ll be safe then.’
‘You’re sure about that?’
‘Well, as long as he can replace me, and my money. Of course that could take some time.’
Allan watched the two women. John was a thoughtful player. Slow, would be a better description. So, her name was Eve. For the first time she was relaxed and smiling. He noticed that she had declined wine at dinner. Seeing her chat to Bren, she seemed serene. If had was a betting man, he’d lay odds on the fact that Eve was going through some kind of crisis. He noticed her twisting her engagement ring. That was some rock. Whoever Eve Aston was, she was seriously rich. Or her fiancé was. Looking down at his own ring finger, he wondered why he was still wearing a wedding ring. Caroline had died two years ago of breast cancer. And now the pink ribbon he’d had for five years was on the scarf of another woman. It felt wrong. He’d bought that badge when they’d first found out. Three months to live. Caroline’s iron will had eked that time into a year. A year of happiness, and hell.
Eve awoke rejuvenated and starving. Again. It’s seems the appetite that had left months ago had returned with a vengeance. Who cares, she thought. It was James who was proud of her being a size 6. She looked once again at the address that Bren had given her, along with her business card. It was a solution. A plan. And now a place – Weather. Funny name. She’d been enchanted by the story of how it had reputedly been called Fair Weather when it was a tiny coastal town where logs spewed down the river from the hills where they had been felled. When the surveyors had come through part of the original sign was missing and Fair Weather had gone done in the annals of topography, and history, as Weather.
Damn, thought Allan. There she was. He had hoped to catch an early flight. He was strangely drawn to this frail woman. His gut twisted. She reminded him of Caroline. He’d been shocked when he first saw her. Thin as a rail and wearing a scarf. It had reminded him of cancer. Chagrined, he remembered that he’d recoiled from her. The sight of her had brought back the past with wrenching clarity. It seems you couldn’t outrun grief. It didn’t gradually rise like a fog, but zoomed like a roller coaster, catching you unawares. Kicking you in the guts.
He hesitated, then she looked up at him. She smiled. Oh what the hell, he’d be gone soon. He’d never see her again. What was the harm in sharing breakfast? Wow. That was one hell of a breakfast on her plate, and she was devouring it as if she hadn’t eaten for days. She wouldn’t stay skinny at that rate. And that would be a good thing.