Sunlight reflects off the ruby-red football discarded on the freshly cut lawn. A long-dormant urge to kick it stirs me. But we’re not at Apex Park for my amusement. It’s our weekly mothers’ group catch-up.
A gentle breeze rustles the leaves of the Moreton Bay Fig tree looming over our small gathering of three. Two mothers, Stephanie and Jenny, are flopped on a large picnic blanket with me, enjoying the waning late summer weather. Our usually sizable group is diminished, so my four-year-old daughter Charlotte is missing her usual playmates. She’s next to me, rocking her doll to sleep while the rest of the kids are scattered throughout the park. My son Ethan is digging in the sandpit with his buddy, Noah.
While Jenny and I trade toilet-training notes, Stephanie pours over her phone, ignoring us. I’m startled when she leans over, waving the device at me.
Her immaculately made-up face beams. ‘I bet it’s great having Rebecca back in town. I mean, she has the perfect life—check out these photos. Her house is so amazing. And her clothes. Wow! Just . . . wow! How fantastic having her as your sister.’
Before I register the social media feed she’s scrutinising, Stephanie whips the phone away, clearly scanning the images with reverence as she smoothes her glossy black hair. Jenny pats her frizzy auburn hair in parody while rolling her eyes behind Stephanie.
Itching to laugh, I manage to keep my expression neutral. ‘She does have loads of clothes. She arrived at Mum and Dad’s yesterday with two full suitcases.’
‘You’re a similar size.’ Stephanie studies my tracksuit pants and faded t-shirt. ‘Why don’t you borrow something . . . nice.’
Jenny pipes up. ‘Who wants coffee? I could pop to The Woolshed.’
‘A double espresso sounds great.’ I yawn.
‘Rough night with the kids?’ Jenny twists her smile.
‘Yep.’ Sleep deprivation is a common complaint here; at least six mothers usually attend our weekly gatherings.
‘Still, it’s good to have Rebecca home?’ Stephanie’s like a stuck record.
I try ignoring her irritating question, but she fixes me with a determined glare and I answer grudgingly. ‘I haven’t seen her much. She’s helping Dad with the opening of his new sports store in Blessington.’
‘I know that,’ Stephanie huffs. ‘She’s posted sneak peeks on all her social media. Your parents must be thrilled to have her help.’
Mum hasn’t stopped gushing. ‘They’re over the moon.’
‘How long’s she staying?’
‘Not sure. Ask her yourself. She and Dad are stopping by on their way to Blessington.’
Stephanie claps. ‘Fantastic.’
Our conversation stops when Ethan runs over wailing, spitting out sand, his little round face screwed up in disgust. Lord knows when he’ll remember sand isn’t for eating. With a sigh, I grab a water bottle and rinse out his mouth, then pull out a box of cut-up fruit as a distraction. A much happier Ethan, sitting on my lap, munches on watermelon as my sister’s sleek LEXUS slides into the car park.
Dad and Rebecca stroll over, carrying what appear to be takeaway coffee cups. As they approach, the three of us stare at my sister. She’s immaculate in a white tee, skinny indigo jeans rolled up to show off white ankle-tied espadrilles and a long white sleeveless over-shirt billowing elegantly in the breeze. Her long, blonde hair shimmers as each strand reflects the sun’s rays—in fact, it’s more like she’s a celestial body producing her own light. We breathe out a collective sigh.
Dad, looking trim and athletic dressed in navy PE gear, notices the football and grins. A cold sensation trickles down my chest as I’m about to greet him. Ethan has dropped a cube of watermelon inside the front of my shirt.
‘Oh, Ethan! No. That’s gross.’ I lift him off my lap, stand, pull at my now wet t-shirt and let the squishy fruit drop on the grass. ‘Yuck.’
Rebecca’s smooth voice reaches us. ‘Ladies, we thought you’d need a pick-me-up.’ She hands out the coffee. It’s just like my sister to turn up with exactly what’s required.
Stephanie jumps up, takes a cup and pecks my sister on the cheek. ‘Ooh! Rebecca. We’re so happy to see you. And a coffee. So kind!’
Jenny joins them while I pull the soggy watermelon from my bra, flinging the pink flesh away. I’m covered in sand and squashed fruit.
Rebecca screws up her nose while handing me a cup. ‘Ah, do you need a tissue?’
I shake my head. ‘I’m okay.’
Everyone settles onto the rug. After a few minutes, Dad entices Charlotte up and throws her the football, which she almost catches.
Stephanie turns to Rebecca. ‘You look amazing!’
And she does, which only makes me wish my son hadn’t used me as a tablecloth.
Rebecca, settled into a casual repose with legs curled to one side, looks completely at ease. ‘Thanks, Steph. But you guys are the amazing ones. I only had me to get ready.’
Jenny nods. ‘I nearly was a no-show. My little darlins ran around like they were possessed this morning. Getting them dressed was a nightmare. If I didn’t have Leah going to school, we’d still be at home.’ Jenny’s oldest daughter is in Year 5 at Swan Falls Area School.
Her twin daughters, Amelia and Anastasia, are digging with their brother, Noah, who’s sporting a blue tutu and red wellies. The girls are wearing boldly patterned tights, leotards and sparkly ballet shoes with Amelia showcasing her wonder woman tiara and armbands, while Anastasia’s draped in a batman cape and mask. Or is it the other way around? Who can tell when they’re identical?
‘It’s great they want to dress themselves,’ I say.
‘I thought you were going to some fancy dress party we didn’t know about.’ Stephanie’s smile teeters close to smug. ‘Poppy and Jessica aren’t into layering.’
Everyone turns to the swings where Stephanie’s daughters, wearing immaculately complimenting summer dresses, take turns pushing their plushies on the swing. Goodness knows how she ended up with the most perfectly behaved children.
Jenny’s face contorts as if she’s about to utter a few home truths. But she shrugs instead. ‘Well, my house looks like a rampaging horde of elephants ran through. I almost stayed home to clean up, but no sleep last night equals zero energy. Sitting on this blanket is all I can manage.’
I stifle a yawn. ‘Me too. Charlotte’s waking in the night. I have to cuddle her ‘til she falls asleep or she’ll get up and play.’
Rebecca tuts. ‘You make motherhood sound so appealing.’
Jenny chuckles. ‘I wouldn’t give it up for anything. Unless you offered me a week of sleep.’
We laugh tiredly and sip our coffee, waiting for the promised boost.
Dad’s voice rings out. ‘C’mon, you sorry lot! Kick the footy with me and Charlotte. Show her how it’s done.’
The four of us turn, watching as he gently handballs the footy to Charlotte, who easily catches it.
Jenny calls, ‘Leah would kick the ball to you. She’s footy mad!’ Under her breath she mutters, ‘I’m so tired, I can barely walk.’
Stephanie points to her dainty sandals. ‘I’m not wrecking these.’
‘Pikers!’ I jump up, the coffee giving me a needed boost. ‘Kick it to me, Dad!’
As the ball soars through the air, I leap off the ground with perfect timing, mark it and kick it back.
Dad claps, then yells. ‘That’s my girl!’
Charlotte loses interest and scurries to the sandpit, while Dad and I muck around longer, then join the others.
Stephanie addresses me as I sit. ‘Oh, I meant to ask—how long’s Lukas staying?’
It takes a second for her words to compute. ‘Lukas? In town?’ My brother-in-law wasn’t a subject I expected to pop up today.
‘Yep. I saw him going into the Swan Inn yesterday. You didn’t know he was home?’
I take a deep breath. ‘No. I did not know that. We weren’t sure if he was going to Zeke and Stella’s wedding.’
Jenny frowns. ‘Lukas? Didn’t he wreck Charlotte’s first birthday party?’
‘He sure did,’ I say, still processing the news. ‘Jake hasn’t forgiven him.’
‘Do I remember them feuding at school? Or have I got that wrong?’ Jenny asks.
‘No.’ Rebecca joins the conversation. ‘You definitely haven’t got that wrong.’
Jenny smiles. ‘That’s good, isn’t it? Good, that he’s come back? So he can make amends?’
I wrinkle my brow, wondering how the hell I’m gonna tell Jake. ‘I’m not so sure.’