Isla was removing the pavlova when her son shrieked. She tightened her hold on the tray, burning her hands through the tattered gloves, then her forearm on the oven.
Hissing out a cry of pain, she set her fragile creation down at the sink, as the stovetop was already laden with burbling and hissing pots, spewing forth a clash of sweet and savoury scents.
‘What’s happened?’ she asked.
Winston’s distraught cries worsened.
Stripping off the useless mitts, she swept through the doorway into the living room.
Winston was splayed out on the floor and Desmond remained unmoved from his armchair, cigarette in mouth, beer in hand, his favourite copy of Finnegan’s Wake in the other, a studious expression on his sweat-slickened face.
‘What happened?’ Isla sank down and scooped up the unresisting Winston. He ensnared her with his limbs like an octopus, but wouldn’t show her his face.
She had to raise her voice to be heard, not only over Winston, but the radio. The free-standing Mantel unit was banging on about the Melbourne Olympics and Isla knew that Desmond couldn’t possibly be listening to it. Having covered the whole drawn-out affair for his job, he scowled at the mere mention of them now. Not that he needed much provocation to scowl at anything at all these days.
Desmond gave a barely perceptible lift of his shoulders, turned a page. ‘Ask him yourself.’
‘I’m asking you,’ she straightened and almost dropped Winston. Not from him squirming, but from all the muck her hands and arms were coated in. She’d need to wash and change. Again.
‘Righto,’ he toyed with one of the slips of notes Finnegan’s Wake was bristling with.
With his beer-holding hand he gestured to the Christmas tree dominating the corner closest to the fireplace, below it was the rug used to catch the fallen needles, pulled from its place. ‘He slipped on that. It wasn’t bad at all.’
‘Winston would beg to differ.’ She jigged their son up and down as his wailing continued and he pressed his snotty face into the dress that she’d changed into an hour or so ago, tickling her skin through the fabric with his hot, sharply-drawn breath. ‘Wouldn’t you matey?’
‘Winston can’t even string a sentence together,’ Desmond took another generous sip of his beer and resumed trying to decipher Joyce, while fat beads of perspiration slid unchecked down his face.
Isla turned away from him then, in search of some composure, as her son, their boy, did his unintentional utmost to shred her hearing. Her eyes wandered over the collection of framed pictures and assorted sentimental bric-a-brac adorning the tallboy gifted them by her brother Malcolm as a wedding present.
Sitting proudly were their respective degrees, both from Sydney University, a decade apart, Desmond’s for journalism, hers for teaching. Positioned in the middle of them was one of her earliest paintings, depicting a wooded fairy-tale vista, replete with dancing cherubic figures. The unnamed piece had caught the eye and elicited the vocal admiration of Desmond when he’d discovered she wanted to pursue a creative career one day and insisted on her showing him some of her work. What a struggle that had been, to scrape together the courage to show him that piece and even then, she’d had to leave the room as he’d appraised it. Seemed petty now, being so cowed like that. By Des, of all people.
The glare of the sun bouncing off the glass encasing the scene made it look like all the little creatures dwelling within were engulfed in flames.
‘Win, knock it off,’ Desmond gruffly ordered, head still buried in his beloved tome.
Instead of placating their boy, that just made his wails renew and Isla brought him over to the window, in the hopes the view beyond might succeed where his father failed. She had sought coolness, yet not a single bit of breeze stirred the gossamer-thin curtains.
She caught sight of a gaggle of the neighbourhood children, she knew by sight, if not by name, spread out across their homely Balmain street, in the full swing of Christmas Day celebration.
Now she knew why Desmond had the radio blaring so.
At least that’s what she hoped was the reason, instead of the alternative – having it up so high to drown out their son’s cries.
Desmond’s eyes bored into her back, as the laughter of the playing kids rolled across her face.
‘Bloody little mongrels,’ he spat. ‘Rabid vermin the lot of them.’
‘They’re just children,’ she said, taken aback by Desmond’s words. ‘You were one once too you know.’
Soon as she said that and Desmond’s widened eyes snapped back to her, she made the same sharp intake of breath she’d done when she burnt herself. Childhood. Taboo. Guilt aplenty.
Despite her arms starting to ache with the prolonged holding of Winston, she continued gently rocking him, made soothing sounds of nothing into his soft, clean hair. Blond and unruly like his father’s. She occasionally prayed to God that that was all that he inherited from him. Then she prayed just as vehemently for forgiveness for thinking such callous thoughts about the man she loved.
It made no difference if Desmond didn’t believe in God, she felt like she’d betrayed him all the same.
‘You promised you wouldn’t start drinking until the afternoon.’ She tried making it sound more a harmless observation than a criticism.
‘Kept it,’ he gave his wristwatch, an exquisite Tudor that she’d given him shortly before they were married, a theatrical shake. ‘It’s getting on.’
‘Well, don’t go falling out of your chair trying to help me get ready,’ Isla fired back as she gently pried away Winston’s hands that were covering his face. She found no bleeding, no welts, no redness, save that caused by his crying.
He favoured her with a huge smile, both rows of baby teeth accounted for, gleaming brightly. She smiled back as she thought how he was more beautiful each day, more assured, becoming whoever he was meant to be, regardless of, or in spite of, Desmond’s naysaying and handwringing. Or worse than those, his silences.
She set Winston down, her arms sore from the exertion, so too the small of her back. He was getting so big and she was getting so weary just thinking about it.
‘What needs doing?’ Desmond killed his beer, set the empty bottle down to join two of its mates on the stand close to his chair, which was stacked high with loose sheets of scribblings atop of which he’d rested Finnegan’s Wake, as a paperweight, as a goal.
Isla knew that they couldn’t be all that important, because Desmond would never leave them in easy reach for Win to rummage through. So that ruled out the latest draft of his novel that he’d been working on longer than their boy had been alive.
Desmond noticed what Isla’s eyes had fallen upon and had the embarrassed reaction of being caught by a smirking stranger with his pants down. ‘What?’
Isla nodded, tried being politely inquisitive but not invasively so. ‘What’s that?’
‘Nothing,’ he flustered, sitting up.
She eyed him with what she hoped was reassurance and glowing adoration, wanting him to share, to feel that it was fine to share. She wondered if he’d deliberately left out some of his writing as proof to her that he was still creative, just as creative as she was, if not more.
His chin tilted upwards to her and the steeliness in his eyes confirmed she’d get no more from him on the subject. So, she relented, nodded back toward the kitchen, where the collection of pots and pans that had been docile a moment ago, now voiced their lament at being neglected so. ‘Off you pop then.’
Desmond scoffed, set the tome down, rose from his chair. Isla noticed how pronounced his gut had become, how much it reverberated with each of his ponderous steps. But his face was still handsome, asymmetrical and assured, luminous with that dark humour at the core of him, that powered him. She’d never grown tired of it, or even after their decade and a bit together, had never become fully accustomed to it. ‘Help in the kitchen? Are you joking?’
‘Are you that much of a misogynist?’ She smiled when she wanted to frown. ‘What happened to the progressive Desmond?’
‘He’s still here, alive and well,’ he drew near with his hands outstretched, as if primed to catch a spooked chicken, boxing her in. ‘If I go in there, I’ll just burn the whole house down.’
‘That’s no excuse,’ she bristled, but already her frustration was waning. She was just too tired to sustain it.
She’d been up before drawn, tending to Winston, who’d wet the bed again and didn’t want his father finding out. When that had been sorted, she’d started cooking, leaving Desmond in bed. He’d continued sleeping in his eerie way, corpse quiet and motionless, a behaviour she suspected had been conditioned into him during his childhood.
‘I’m a scoundrel, I know,’ he said, regarding her with the deprecating half-smile he’d don whenever he knew he’d been lax in the husband or father department, and wanted to weasel out of any repercussions.
It usually worked and she felt it working on her then, as knots in one’s hair succumbing to deft and determined fingers. She loathed that it did, that he knew it did.
‘You are,’ she buried her face in Winston’s to hide it from Desmond’s.
‘The worst of the worst,’ he sank down to his knees and hugged them both, tried blowing raspberries into Isla’s stomach. Winston giggled and reached a tiny hand out to pull and prod at his father’s face.
‘Stop,’ she said, tried angling away her body away. ‘You need a shave.’
‘I just need my wife to love me as I love her,’ he said, not looking at her, his nose brushing against Winston’s.
Isla just wanted the contact to end, not that she found her husband’s touch unpleasant, only that she found him so unattractive when he was sweating the beers he had been drinking.
Desmond had never had an athletic physique, but it had held such staggering allure for Isla when she’d met him. A real man’s body, she’d thought. One that bore the wear and tear of hedonism, a prerequisite for any writer worthy of such a classification. What a jarring contrast Desmond’s proudly unfit body had been to those of the men she’d grown up with. Those of her adopted brother, Malcolm, of her father, Barry, that of his best mate and business partner, Lindsay, or of any of the ones endlessly paraded before her of the young men who worked for them, toweringly tall and imposingly built, the hubris they exuded. How could she be expected to lust after something that was so contrived and certain in its perfection?
Her mind’s wandering stirred her and she pinched Desmond’s bottom, hard enough to produce a yelp. ‘What was that for?’
‘You deserved it.’
Even though she’d said it jokingly, Desmond’s earnest smile bled out from a wounded expression. But he reclaimed his fail-safe smirk quickly, even if his eyes didn’t fully meet hers.
‘I acknowledge that I can’t help in that hellhole,’ still hugging Isla, he nodded toward the doorway where the kitchen lay beyond. ‘But I can and will get the car packed. Assuming those little bastards haven’t blown it up or something.’
‘Language,’ she mock chided as she gently cupped Winston’s ears. He tried jerking out of her loose grasp, his tiny hands battering at her, as he continued giggling.
‘He’s got to learn it all sometime,’ Desmond readjusted his grip around them both, the proximity to his wife and son made him seem taller, surer, happier. ‘For the playground.’
Isla was astonished at Desmond failing to notice he’d mentioned something related to childhood. She tightened her hug on him as she basked in Winston’s easy and breathless fits of giggles, its mellifluousness spread a warm giddiness in her.
The perfection of the moment left her wanting to know, why couldn’t they all be like that?
‘I truly hope you’re wrong about the car,’ she glanced furtively toward the window, as if it would be filled with the leering face of a prankster. ‘Sounded like they were getting up to all sorts before.’
They had heard a few firecrackers going off earlier in the day and it had been disconcertingly silent on that front since. Maybe one of their half-cut fathers had gifted them something truly dangerous. It was pretty commonplace for kids to lose a digit or worse from such misadventures. That was something that hadn’t improved since back in her day.
Isla pushed those thoughts away as she eased Desmond off her. ‘Winston can help.’
Desmond hesitated, before ruffling his son’s hair. ‘Winston can help.’
‘Good,’ Isla tugged herself out of Desmond’s arms, catching another whiff of him. ‘You need to wash before we go.’
He couldn’t hide his offense. ‘I had one just before.’
‘Have another then,’ she said, softening it with ‘Do it for me, please. Come on, you want to at least look half the part for my parents.’
‘If there’s time,’ he grumbled. ‘And I’m only doing it for you, not for your brother and certainly not for your witch of a mother.’
‘Desmond Mussett,’ she would’ve smacked him if she had a free hand. ‘There’ll be none of that.’
Isla set Winston down. He raced out of the room, easily dodging Desmond, who was too slow to block his escape. ‘Win, you’re helping your old man.’
Winston thundered down the hallway toward his bedroom. Isla saw Desmond’s face darken. ‘Don’t go getting grumpy. Just call out to him when you’re at the door, he’ll come.’
‘He only listens to you,’ Desmond sulked, averted his eyes from hers.
‘He listens to you when you’re not yelling at him and terrifying him.’
‘I don’t do that,’ he raised his voice then, ended his sentence with a growl.
Isla felt like saying case in point, but didn’t.
Desmond had never worried her with his temper, he’d always been a pacifist.
In the beginning, when he still frequented his old university, often with a group of disciples trailing after him, Desmond had waxed lyrical about how violence was the rudimentary language of the bourgeois, albeit their lowly minions.
But of late, or for a good long while now, he’d been so irascible, so quick to adopt the jaw-clenched, fists-clenched-at-his-side stance.
Isla knew that most of his ire stemmed from his dealings with Winston, but not how to remedy that. Was he not reassured by Winston’s endlessly inquisitive spirit?
Surely, he saw that their son had inherited that wondrous trait from him. How could he fail to see that thirst for knowledge when Winston reverentially sat at his feet, firing disparate, random questions at him until the sheer exertion of doing so made him drop off and ended with Desmond carrying him off to bed?
Seeing the most important men in her life like that, feeling the fleeting harmony they exuded, restored her belief that their little family unit could endure, that the hardships would be conquered and any animosity between Desmond and her, decidedly resolved.
‘Please just go pack,’ Isla motioned to the mound of presents under the tree.
She returned to the stove to find that nothing had burnt, or boiled over and that the pavlova had not cracked like frozen glass. That was a relief, the last thing she needed was a snide comment, or a lecture from her mum. Not that Mum was a whizz in the culinary department either, only that she never passed up an opportunity to give her daughter a tongue-lashing over anything, however trivial.
‘Malcolm going to make an appearance?’ Desmond asked from the doorway.
Isla was so startled she nearly dropped the dish of honey glaze she was spreading atop the steaming leg of ham.
‘Of course, he will be,’ she coated her response with an acidic warning. ‘You’re supposed to be getting the car ready with Win.’
Desmond lifted his shoulders, looked toward the fridge where what remained of the beer stockpile beckoned. ‘He didn’t come.’
Isla had heard as much, knew that it was because Winston had come to associate his father’s utterance of his name with something bad.
‘Please just go start taking the presents. We’re going to be late.’
‘I hope your brother behaves himself today,’ Desmond said.
Desmond liked to condescendingly drawl “brother”, like Malcolm was a charlatan that was unworthy of being identified as one. That ugly, heavy jealousy that had been there almost from the start, as soon as he’d learned Malcolm was adopted, evolving into rancour that fuelled their untold verbal stoushes over the years. It was an unseen beast tethered to the pair, that crammed itself into any room they shared, so that it felt like there was no space for anyone else, least of all her.
Desmond noted Isla’s pointed silence and retreated with a parting tongue cluck, like he’d won some argument and was being magnanimous.
She heard the front door open and Desmond call out to his son. ‘Win mate, I need your help.’
His tone was friendly and light and Isla sent a telepathic message to her son to emerge from his room and help his father as a good boy should, as a son that didn’t fear his father’s wrath would.