Chapter 1: Rebecca
No periods, no childbirth and no menopause!
Men have it so much easier than women, thought Rebecca MacRitchie as she stepped out of the shower, grabbed a towel, wrapped it around herself and glared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror.
Take her husband, Hugh, for instance. Although thirteen years her senior, his grey hair made him look distinguished; all hers did was keep her hairdresser in designer dresses. Her daughter, Paige, had tried to reassure her that grey hair was all the rage—apparently some young women were actually dyeing their hair silver. It was nonsensical! Surely they’d be regretting that decision later when their first actual grey hair sprouted on their head.
Young women and all men, none of them knew how lucky they were.
Geez, Rebecca, you sound like you’re ninety, not fifty.
But it was true. Following a quick shower, Hugh had thrown on his black dinner suit without much fuss and was currently downstairs, no doubt with his feet up in front of the TV watching sport on Foxtel. Whereas a shower was only the beginning of Rebecca’s preparation.
She still had to blow-dry her hair, carefully apply her make-up to hide her ever-increasing multitude of wrinkles and pick out a dress that didn’t accentuate her middle-aged spread. Normally Rebecca loved nothing better than dressing up, but tonight she was weary and everything simply felt like too much effort.
‘Pull yourself together,’ she told her reflection. If any night required her best effort this was it!
A shot of excitement fizzed through her at the prospect of what was to come. Tonight was Paige’s big night and Rebecca wasn’t about to let the odd hot flush or a little bit of dizziness ruin it for either of them. She’d down a cocktail of Berocca and Panadol before they left and she’d be fine.
Forcing herself out of the en suite and into the bedroom, she chose an eighties playlist on Spotify and put her phone on the speaker dock beside the bed. Her favourite tunes from her teenage years never failed to lift her spirits and would surely help get her out of the funk she’d been in these last few days.
Molly, their black labrador, who’d been lazing on the floor by the bed, looked up briefly as Cindi Lauper’s voice filled the air, then promptly dropped her head back onto her paws.
‘You don’t know how easy your life is,’ Rebecca told her as she went to select some underwear. She rubbed the towel over her body, trying not to think about how soft it was nowadays. Hugh said there was just more of her to cuddle and he’d love her even if she grew to three times her current size, but that didn’t make her feel any better. Discarding the towel on the end of the bed, she pulled on a pair of lace knickers—feel-good underwear had always been important to her. But when she reached for the matching bra, she realised her dress would dictate which bra she could wear and she still hadn’t decided on her outfit.
Bugger it. With a sigh, she went into her walk-in robe and stared at the row of outfits. Did tonight’s celebration call for ruffles or lace? Soft florals or bright prints? Something flowing or something fitted? A dress or a jumpsuit? Usually Rebecca dressed according to mood—one day she’d be a pencil-skirt-and-heels kind of woman, the next day she’d look completely bohemian in colourful floor-length dresses, boots and long, dangly earrings. Hugh would laugh if she told him she had nothing to wear, but the problem tonight was she couldn’t quite put her finger on how she felt. She berated herself for leaving this important decision to the last minute—Paige’s book launch had been scheduled for months. But then again, until a couple of days ago, Rebecca hadn’t known that the launch wouldn’t be the only thing they were celebrating.
She smiled at the recollection of Solomon arriving on their doorstep, looking handsome as always but rubbing the back of his neck and blinking as if agitated.
‘What a lovely surprise,’ she’d said to her daughter’s boyfriend as she’d opened the door. But then she’d noticed his worried expression and her heart had slammed up to her throat. ‘Oh, Sol, is everything okay?’
For a moment she’d feared something had happened to Paige.
He nodded rapidly. ‘Yes. I mean, I think so. I hope so. Can I come in?’
‘Of course. You know you’re always welcome here.’ Rebecca pulled him into a hug and then ushered him inside. ‘Can I get you a drink? A beer? Coffee? Milo?’
At that point Hugh had poked his head into the hallway from the living room. ‘Sol, mate. Good to see you. Is Paige with you?’
‘Uh … no. She’s … um …’ Solomon, always confident and well spoken, seemed at a loss for words.
‘She’s teaching one of her art classes tonight, honey,’ Rebecca informed her husband.
‘Right. Well, to what do we owe the pleasure?’ Hugh liked Solomon too—occasionally the two of them went to a footy game together, thankfully they both barracked for the Swans—but those occasions were always prearranged and Rebecca couldn’t remember another time Sol had arrived on their doorstep unannounced and without their daughter.
Solomon shoved his hands into his pockets and cleared his throat. ‘I know Paige and I haven’t been going out for that long …’
‘Haven’t you?’ Hugh frowned. ‘Feels like a bloody long time to me.’
Rebecca smiled. ‘Almost two years.’
Solomon nodded. ‘And I know I’m a bit older than her.’
‘Only a few years,’ Rebecca said.
This time Hugh chuckled. ‘I’m thirteen years older than Rebecca and we’ve done alright. Haven’t we, love?’
‘Let the boy speak,’ she said tersely, her heart suddenly light and impatient as she guessed what Solomon was about to say. Or rather ask.
‘Well, the bottom line is, you know how much I adore your daughter. She’s my best friend and also my …’ Solomon paused a moment. ‘Well, the absolute best person I know. I want to marry her and I was hoping you’d give us your blessing?’
Rebecca had burst into tears—happy ones—and yanked Solomon into another hug. Of course the answer was yes—not that she believed he needed their permission, but she couldn’t help thinking it sweet that he’d come seeking it.
Within seconds she felt Hugh wrapping his arms around them both and when he spoke, she could tell he was all choked up as well. ‘I didn’t think blokes still came to the parents first, but I appreciate you thinking of us, Sol.’
Solomon let out a relieved chuckle and the three of them disentangled. ‘She might not say yes.’ But his big grin told them he was positive she would.
And Rebecca was confident too. Until Solomon, Paige hadn’t had any serious relationships. Although there’d been plenty of boys chasing her, she was far more interested in pursuing her art and going in to bat for the disadvantaged, but from the moment Paige met Sol, she was a goner. They were perfect together—not only did they make a striking couple but they shared the same values, made each other laugh and you only had to look at them to see the chemistry between them.
Rebecca could always tell when they’d just had sex—it took a good while after for Paige’s post-coital glow to diminish—and she felt such satisfaction and contentment that her daughter had a beautiful sex life. She supposed most mothers didn’t like thinking about their daughters doing the horizontal mambo. Her own would have preferred she’d stayed a virgin until she was thirty-five.
But finding someone you were both intellectually and sexually compatible with was like winning the relationship lottery. Rebecca felt confident Paige and Sol had all the ingredients for a successful, happy life together and she couldn’t help being excited at the prospect of a wedding. There’d be so much to organise; Paige would look stunning in practically any style of dress, but what fun they’d have together searching for one.
At the thought of a dress, Rebecca remembered why she was standing in her walk-in robe practically naked. She needed to get a move on or they’d be late.
Finally, she picked out two dresses and laid them out on the bed. One was a black lace knee-length number—the menopausal woman’s equivalent of a little black dress—and the other, a maxi dress, in all the colours of the rainbow. But which one would work better tonight? The bright multi-coloured gown was fun and would suit the occasion but she didn’t want to draw too much attention to herself when it wasn’t her night. The black dress might be better, but then again, she didn’t want to look like she was going to a funeral.
Why is this so difficult?
She fought a yawn and, although excited for the evening ahead, couldn’t help thinking how welcoming her bed looked. It was not even six o’clock and already she was struggling to keep her eyes open.
At the sound of Hugh whistling as he padded up the stairs, she snatched her towel back off the end of the bed and covered her nakedness. The last thing she needed right now was him getting frisky.
‘You almost ready, honey?’ he asked as he appeared in the doorway.
She gestured to the bed. ‘I can’t decide between these two dresses.’
Hugh frowned as he looked from black to rainbow and back again. ‘They’re both nice.’
‘Nice? I want to look more than bloody nice. Tonight is important. It’s not every night your daughter gets engaged.’
‘Or launches a book.’ Hugh winked, then took a step towards her and put a hand against her arm. ‘Are you okay? You look a little off-colour.’
Truth was, Rebecca hadn’t been feeling herself for a few weeks now; she’d been off her food—very unlike her—and had found herself short of breath every time she trekked upstairs. ‘I’m just tired.’
‘Perhaps you need to slow down a little. Cut back on your charity work or reduce your number of students. And maybe you should go see a doctor, you might be low on iron or something.’
‘I like being busy. But I’m going to make an appointment with Dr Bell next week. I think I might be menopausal.’
‘Ah.’ Hugh’s lips slowly curved into a smile and he nodded. ‘That makes sense.’
It might make sense but it didn’t mean she had to like it. ‘It’s not funny. I’ll probably turn into a nightmare to live with. Hot flushes, mood swings, you’re in for a real treat.’
‘I’m sure I’ll cope.’ He dropped a kiss on her forehead. ‘Now, is there anything I can do to help you get ready? We don’t want to be late. Just think, when Paige and Sol get married, we’ll finally have the son we always wanted.’
At his words, Rebecca’s stomach quivered uncomfortably and she thought of the son she could have had. Hugh would have liked a house full of children, but Rebecca hadn’t done pregnancy or early motherhood well. Being pregnant, going through almost twenty-four hours of back-breaking labour with Paige had awakened painful memories and led to postpartum depression.
She couldn’t bear the prospect of going through all that again, so had decided against any more children.
‘Yes.’ Rebecca focused once again on the present as she forced a smile for her husband. ‘I’m so happy for Paige and Solomon. You choose which dress, I’ll quickly do my hair and make-up, and then, let’s get this show on the road.’
Chapter 2: Clara
As Clarabel Jones curled the ribbon on the present she’d just wrapped for her niece’s twenty-first birthday, her mobile rang. Her hand stilled and her heart squeezed as she stared at the device like it were a ticking bomb. Even without glancing at the screen, she knew who it would be. Almost two years since their divorce and Rob still hadn’t got the message she didn’t want him in her life anymore.
With a heavy sigh, she put down the scissors and abandoned the present. If she didn’t answer he’d only try again, or worse, show up on her doorstep. The hairs on the back of her neck rose and she turned slowly towards the front of the house they’d shared for almost twenty-five years as if he were already standing there banging on the front door for her to let him in. Today, tonight, was hard enough as it was.
A tear for what could have been slid down her cheek and she swiped at it angrily as she snatched up the phone. ‘Hello, Rob.’
‘I didn’t see you at the cemetery today,’ he slurred, already obviously liquored up.
‘I went yesterday.’ Even as she said this she was annoyed at herself for feeling the need to justify herself. All these years later her heart was still in pieces, and she didn’t need him making her feel worse.
‘I see.’ Was that judgement in his tone? ‘How are you?’
How do you think I am?
She took a deep breath. ‘I’m fine, Rob. What about you? How’s your mother?’
‘Can I come round? You’re the only one who truly understands about Laura. We should be together today of all days.’
At the hurt evident in his voice, she felt herself breaking, her resolve wavering. There were times in the past when they had managed to comfort each other through the grief. Times when she’d thought maybe their marriage had a chance of recovering, of surviving. After all, who could possibly understand her heartbreak better than him?
But those times were rare and more often than not he’d turned to a bottle instead. He was going to end up one of those sad, lonely old men who lived on cereal and biscuits (or worse, tinned pet food) and who stunk of body odour because no one ever reminded them to have a shower. Her heart squeezed at the thought, but Rob wasn’t her responsibility anymore.
She couldn’t, she wouldn’t, give in to the guilt.
‘No, you can’t. I’m going out, but even if I wasn’t, you wouldn’t be welcome here. You need to stop calling me, Rob. I don’t want you in my life anymore.’
Silence greeted her declaration. She wondered if he’d finally get the message or if tomorrow he’d have forgotten this conversation.
‘Where are you going?’ he asked eventually.
She should have hung up, but she’d always found cruelty difficult. ‘It’s Aoifa’s twenty-first birthday so I’m going out to celebrate.’
She waited for the snide remark—about how she could possibly go to a party today of all days—but it didn’t come.
‘Where is it?’
‘Oh, some restaurant in the city,’ she lied, because she wouldn’t put it past him turning up off his trolley and ruining Aoifa’s big birthday bash.
‘Say happy birthday to her for me then.’ His words didn’t sound sarcastic but sometimes it was hard to tell.
‘I will. Thank you. Now, I’m sorry but I’ve got to go.’
‘Can I call you later?’
‘No. Goodbye, Rob.’ And then she disconnected the call.
As Clara went back to garnishing the present, she glanced longingly into the living room at the TV. The urge to curl up on the couch and watch some mindless movie was strong—and no one would blame her if she did—but she knew she’d feel better if she went out. Besides, she loved her niece dearly and wanted to celebrate her birthday with the rest of her family.
It wasn’t Aoifa’s fault she shared her birthday with the anniversary of her cousin’s death.
Chapter 3: Josie
Laptop on her knee, Josephine Mitreski tapped her neon-pink fingernails on her bedside table as she waited for her husband to FaceTime her. Nik was in Japan, apparently working, but she had a sneaking suspicion he was happier over there than he had been with her for the past few months. It was Saturday night and here she was, stuck in a place they’d moved to because of his work, with no family and no one she could really classify as a friend. The most exciting thing she had to look forward to was a phone call from her absent husband and he couldn’t even manage to call her at their prearranged time.
Taking matters into her own hands, she punched her finger to the keyboard and dialled him instead. Just when she thought the call was about to ring out, his smiley, gorgeous face appeared on the screen.
‘Hey, babe.’ His warm voice filled the bedroom and he seemed genuinely happy to see her. Tears immediately prickled at the back of her eyelids.
‘You were supposed to call me,’ she accused, hating herself for sounding so needy.
‘Sorry. I’ve been busy. Work’s insane right now.’
‘Never mind.’ She leaned back against the pillows and lifted her knees, raising the laptop. ‘How are you?’
‘Good. Busy.’ He glanced over his shoulder as if expecting to see someone. ‘Work’s demanding, we don’t have the same supporting manpower here as in Australia, but it’s good experience.’ He peered closer to his screen. ‘Are you still wearing your pyjamas?’
‘No. I just had a shower and put them on.’
‘Okay, good.’ She bit back her irritation at his obvious relief. Last she checked it wasn’t a crime to wear your PJs all weekend. ‘What have you been up to today?’
She noticed he didn’t ask how she was—probably he didn’t want to know the answer. Just as he wouldn’t have liked the fact she’d been wearing her pyjamas since she got home from work yesterday afternoon and had no intention of getting out of them until she had to leave the house again Monday morning.
‘Oh, you know.’ She injected a chirpiness into her voice. ‘I went for a walk along the beach this morning, did some shopping, then a bit of housework and a lot of marking—the year elevens and twelves have just done their mid-year exams.’
‘Bet you’re happy I’m not there distracting you then,’ he said with a cheeky grin.
As a high school drama and English teacher, Josie brought a lot of work home, whereas Nik’s job as an aircraft engineer didn’t require after-hours input. On the nights or weekends she had to do preparation or marking, Nik being home was both a help and a hindrance.
‘It’s too quiet here without you. I miss you.’
‘I miss you, too. I sleep crap when you’re not lying beside me, but I’ll be home soon. Only seven more sleeps to go.’
Home? Even after eighteen months Sydney still didn’t feel like home. ‘Good.’
This one word was met with awkward silence—the thing that had broken them but which Nik didn’t like talking about lingered between them like the proverbial elephant in the room.
‘Have you heard from your dad lately?’ he asked eventually.
Josie nodded. ‘He sent an email from some place in the South Pacific a couple of days ago. Sounds like he’s having the time of his life, meeting different people every night. Dancing till dawn. You’d think he was seventeen not seventy. Mum would have hated it.’
Nik chuckled. ‘Good on him. Maybe we should try a cruise sometime.’
Josie tried hard to hide her horror. She could barely bring herself to get off the couch these days; the idea of being stuck at sea with a couple of thousand strangers didn’t appeal in the slightest. ‘Aren’t cruises for single people, retirees or young families?’
And there, without her actually mentioning it, was the elephant. No matter how hard they’d tried, she and Nik didn’t fit any of those classifications.
His expression tightened and she noticed little spots of rouge appear in his cheeks. ‘I was thinking maybe we could go home for Christmas.’
This time it was obvious the home in question referred to Perth—where his huge extended family and her smaller one still lived—but a trip back to her birth state appealed only marginally more than a journey on the high seas.
‘Didn’t we just have Christmas?’ She tried to make the question sound like a joke.
‘It’s June, Jose. Besides, if I want time off over the holidays, I need to book now. Some of us only get four weeks a year.’
Her hackles rose. It was one thing people who didn’t understand how hard teachers worked making snide remarks about all the holidays they got, but Nik knew better. She was about to remind him exactly this when a voice sounded from somewhere behind him.
‘Nikolce, my main man, hurry up! We’re ready to go and there’s a beer with your name on it waiting.’
Nik glanced behind him again as the owner of the voice poked his head around the door. No one but Nik’s grandmother and his mates (when they were taking the piss) called him ‘Nikolce’; sometimes Josie even forgot it was his real name. She vaguely recognised the tall, ginger-haired man as one of Nik’s colleagues from Perth.
‘Give me five,’ Nik called back and although he had his head turned away from the screen she imagined him explaining with his eyes that he was talking to the crazy wife and couldn’t rush things.
‘Hi, Josie.’ The guy—she couldn’t remember his name—waved from the door. ‘How are you?’
‘Fine. Hi.’ She forced a smile.
He disappeared and Nik turned back to the screen.
‘Where’re you going?’
He shrugged. ‘Dunno. Some of the guys were just gonna head out for a few drinks, but I don’t have to … I can stay if you want to chat.’
Yes, she did want him to stay so she wasn’t left alone with her thoughts, but she didn’t want to be an obligation or a drag.
‘Nah, it’s fine. You go.’ She waved a hand at the screen attempting nonchalance. ‘I’m actually going out too.’
‘Really?’ He sounded sceptical and rightly so because that was complete and utter bullshit.
In reality she planned a night in bed with a bottle of wine and one of her favourite movies from the eighties playing on her laptop. Big bold hair, outrageous fashion, feel-good music and a little Molly Ringwald had been her medicine of choice for as long as she could remember. Now the question wasn’t whether she was more in a Breakfast Club or Pretty in Pink mood, but rather if any of her old faves would do the trick.
‘Yep—some of the other teachers are going out for dinner to celebrate the end of exams.’
She thought quickly, naming a couple of young women from the English department and a music teacher she didn’t even like. Nik hadn’t met many of the people she worked with, so he bought the list hook, line and sinker.
‘That’ll be nice. It’ll do you good to get out.’
‘Yes. So you go enjoy your night out and I better get ready for mine.’
‘Yeah, you do that.’ And then he grinned. ‘You might embarrass your colleagues if you turn up to the restaurant in your current attire.’
‘What?’ She feigned hurt as she gestured to her vinyl-record-covered flannelette pyjamas. ‘You don’t like these?’
‘They’re cute, but I much prefer you without anything on at all.’
Once upon a time such words from Nik would have sent shivers rippling through her body, but now all Josie felt was a flicker of irritation.
‘I think going out in my birthday suit might embarrass my friends even more. Now, have a good night.’
‘You too. I love you. Send me a pic of you all dressed up—it’ll make it feel almost like we’re going out together.’
‘Okay.’ She silently cursed this sweet suggestion.
Nik grinned, blew her a kiss and then disconnected the call.
FFS. Cursing Nik’s name, she discarded the laptop beside her, then threw back the bedcovers, climbed out of bed, flung open her wardrobe and grabbed the first thing she laid eyes on. She ripped off her PJs, shimmied the dress up over her hips and reached around to zip it up. Her bra was very visible but her gold jacket over the top would fix that for the photo. Ten minutes later, quicker than she’d ever taken to get ready for a night out in her life, her hair and make-up was done, and she fake-smiled at her phone as she snapped a selfie.
Image sent, she made a beeline for the kitchen. Pulling open the fridge, she could already taste the wine on her tongue and couldn’t wait for its anaesthetising effects to give her some reprieve from her thoughts. Yet, when she picked up the bottle she was horrified to find there wasn’t even enough for half a glass.
Surely she hadn’t devoured two whole bottles on her own last night?
A quick survey of her cupboards told her she had and this made her want to drop to her knees and howl. A little voice in her head told her to take a long, hard look at herself and ask when wine had become so important to her.
But a much stronger voice whispered the solution.
You’re all dressed up. Go out and have a drink.
Why should Nik be the only one having fun?
About the author:
Rachael Johns, an English teacher by trade and a mum 24/7, is the bestselling ABIA-winning author of The Patterson Girls and a number of other romance and women’s fiction books including The Art of Keeping Secrets and The Greatest Gift. She is currently Australia’s leading writer of contemporary relationship stories around women’s issues, a genre she has coined ‘life-lit’. Rachael lives in the Perth hills with her hyperactive husband, three mostly-gorgeous heroes-in-training and a very badly-behaved dog. She rarely sleeps and never irons.