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Missed Calling

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Felicity began to doubt whether she wanted this at all; on standing once more in the front room, by the empty chair, just how pregnant her Aunt Ada’s manor house was with the stirring of memory and the dim but perceivable beat of former feeling became apparent to her.

Aunt Ada’s house had always been characterful. Felicity attempted again to pinpoint the locus of blessed antique peculiarity in the old house. The pantry had held a terrible fascination to her older cousin, Kirsten, and herself when young. More clay than brick, the space had appeared as primordial and detached from their world as the button lifeboat shaken free from the lordly cruise ship. The budget canned peaches from years before, the smooth pea-green linoleum that Aunt Ada’s cat would sprawl out across on hot days, the chipped crockery hidden away from guests. It had always been her finest spread for Felicity and Kirsten. And, when they were so crammed full of Pavlova cake they could no longer move, their dismissal of the gum sweet laden slices proffered from a floral silken arm with the tenacity of a terrier was met with the cackling riposte from the old lady, “You’re off your trolley, the both of you!”

All this conjured up an air so personal and unfamiliar that neither of the girls had dared enter the pantry when Aunt Ada was in sight.

Or perhaps the locus was the foot of the stairs, where the steps could be seen springing erratically into a black zenith, so that one could be forgiven for thinking one was not climbing, but falling.

Or even the foyer; the stained glass windows there converted the light into a hundred currencies of gold, where Felicity and Kirsten would flop gladly and everything sounded like a secret.

These thoughts were quickly dispelled as Felicity heard the car pull up in the driveway. Walking to the foyer, she checked herself briskly in the mirror. Wondered fleetingly if the duffel coat and boyfriend shirt she was wearing drew attention to her contrasting, feminine youthfulness or simply painted her as tired and frumpy.

The front door swung open, and Felicity stared in disbelief. “My God,” she whispered. “Kirsten?”

The small girl before her, casting her cool grey eyes askance at Felicity, dipped her hands into her peach plaid pockets at intervals and jiggled their contents meaningfully, as though for reassurance. They made the noises of creamy planes of stones scudding past each other. Finally, she spoke. “Who are you? Are you Felicity?” And then, quietly, uncertainly, “What happened to your hair?”

“That’s Auntie Felicity to you.” A woman approached and swept the girl into her arms, so that the girl’s feet almost left the floor. The swollen pockets of stones were like weights on a balloon, and Felicity envisioned the pale slip of a girl would have bobbed up to the ceiling if they weren’t in place. “Consideration for others is the basic of a good life: Confucius.” And, patting her on the bottom, smiled. “Now run along and play, Auntie Felicity and your mother have a lot to talk about.” She looked up at Felicity now, but did not smile. Kirsten had changed; narrower, sleeker and more contained. Every curl, dimple and knock to her teeth and knees had been ironed out, aligned.

“She’s beautiful. She has your eyes and bearing,” Felicity said. “She seemed to know me...”

“Yes, there’s a picture of us in a drawer at home. Tate asks after you. I think she was surprised to see that people’s hair colour can change, and not just the seasons.”

Felicity paused, as Kirsten’s hair was the colour of burnt almonds and not, as she remembered it, burnished straw. She quickly concluded that either her daughter had never seen her mother’s true hair colour, or Kirsten had truly altered. Or, Felicity considered with an immediately snuffled unease, Kirsten was, for no apparent reason, lying to her.

“I’m sorry you couldn’t make it to the funeral,” Felicity began.

Kirsten looked away. “Yes. Aunt Ada held a special place in my heart. She was a handsome, hard-working woman the likes of we will most probably never know again – I only wish Tate could have met her.” Kirsten said, a look of deep sadness on her features that recalled for a moment child-Kirsten; however, it was short-lived. And no sooner had she said her piece than she resumed her air of stricken world-weariness. “Anyway,” she said, louder now, as if her former speech had compensated for any past faults, “we’re here now.”

“You didn’t have to bring her,” Felicity frowned, all the while scanning Kirsten’s face devotedly for any remnants of the girl she had known. “Tate, I mean.”

“No. No, that’s not true. It is absolutely imperative that Tate be here; all the better for her to acclimatise to her new home.”

“Your home?” Felicity’s thoughts stiffened and slowed, rocked to a dampened pulse. It was the lull of Kirsten’s words, and the overwhelming feeling that some great injustice was imminent, but Felicity’s words might never find the footing to establish it. She didn’t trust herself to fish out the telling preposition, the damning adjective, the vital piece that Kirsten would say, indeed may already have said, that would wrench Felicity from the syrup-seize of this web. Crucial-seeming snatches of words occurred to her; Dyed Hair, The Funeral, Right, Cousins... but some could not be made sense of, and none seemed enough on their own. “But Kirsten,” she managed to protest, “how can that be? I’ve been the one looking after Aunt Ada for the past decade. I cooked for her, bathed her, planted her cabbages for her! I’ve been her only friend!”

“With all due respect, Felicity,” Kirsten said, with a soothing tone, as of a teacher that has been called to diffuse a childish spat, “Your dad was the adopted brother of Aunt Ada; you aren’t blood relatives, and I’m afraid that is what counts.”

Felicity looked out the window in despair, and saw Tate. She was crouched by the pond in the garden, pushing stars of dwarf water lilies across the water’s surface. It brought to mind the summers when Felicity and Kirsten had splashed around in the same pond, deliriously happy. Only now when she thought of that time, the pond was far bigger and deeper than in reality, and one girl was frantically searching the pond’s surface, while the other slipped further and further into a nadir of night, floundering futilely against the enormous stones sewn into her dress.


Felicity wrenched Kirsten by her arm, which stiffened and straightened almost immediately upon touch, as a spider shrivels into an inhalation beneath the passing shadow.

“Come here.”

She led her through the knotty alder kitchen door to the garden, looking to Kirsten with bated breath. “She loves the pond. Your daughter seems untroubled by who owns what, don’t you think?”

Kirsten did not answer right away. There was only the sound of softly sloshing water. She nodded, pried her arm free from Felicity’s grasp and folded it smartly against her front. “It’ll have to go. That pond is a prehistoric child trap. The authorities would have been filled it in years ago, if it wasn’t for those unkempt bushes that obscure the garden from the outside world.” She raised her voice to a shrill yelp. “Tate! Get away from there!”

The child looked up glumly, before scampering between the two into the house distractedly, a stream of shaken peach plaid air dividing them.

Kirsten turned to Felicity. “How dare you attempt to use my own daughter against me. Tate’s childish love is not a measure of how we should live our lives.”

“My God, Kirsten, you’d better hope not, because if it just so happens to count for something then that’s one less thing you’d own. And I know how important that is to you.”

“Look, little cousin. I don’t know what your problem is, but I didn’t ask for this house. And neither did you. And I wasn’t asked to look after Aunt Ada – before today I hadn’t even known you’d put in your Brownie hours – and neither were you. But there’s a way it works. Aunt Ada wrote her will years before, with her family in mind. Seems to me you should’ve spent less time planting cabbages and more time asking questions.”

Felicity sucked the air through her clenched teeth, steadied herself against the doorframe. “I hope this place is still haunted.” Her legs began to tremble now, as they did when she felt the approach of the train-sure unswerving of conflict. When she had quit her job at the jewellery store, she had known she had had the upper hand; as the only person in town with an art and design degree, and a diligent employee whose jewellery designs rivalled the pastel irresistibility of the parlour’s ice creams next door, she was invaluable to the store. She could have sued, and the possibility had fluttered at her back, buoying it upright. But still her legs had shaken.

And now she shook with frustration at her own self for having shown her anger; her composure had been ammunition, the not-shown outlining her words with a protective pentagram of incontestability.

A shadow passed across Kirsten’s eyes. Doubt, perhaps? She recovered promptly with a smile.

Music began playing. An ethereal yet omnipresent piano piece. It seemed much too bright against the otherness of the leftover kitchenware, that now appeared oddly disembodied. Felicity wondered flittingly if the house, which had always felt live, was re-asserting its presence, and felt a flush of guilt that the two of them should argue in this place, in the shadow of resent events.

But Kirsten flashed her eyes at Felicity, warding her away. “Excuse me.” She snapped open a mobile phone and the music came to an abrupt end, mid-falsetto ivory tinkle.

“I’m sorry – I can’t quite hear you... Pardon? I’m sorry, it’s no good. Bad connection.” And, with a flick of her wrist, the phone was sheathed. But the look of confusion remained on her face before it was quickly reformed, folded away without a second glance like a redundant love note.

It was only then that Felicity thought to ask after the husband aunt Ada had told her Kirsten had met at law school. The old lady asked after Kirsten often, too, as though not seeming to have perceived the movement of time, airmiles, childish love.

“Was that your husband?”

Kirsten opened her mouth to reply, but shut it again. Silence. For the first time since she had arrived, the two did not attempt to fill it. The sounds from the garden became clearer; the domestic coo of the woodpigeon couple that had frequented the pond for years, and remained together since long before. And then Tate’s animated burble filtered through.

“Hello! Who are you?” The child could be heard to say.

“Tate.” Kirsten moved efficiently, diplomatically, but swiftly to the foyer, where Tate stood, chattering like a little bird, a porcelain rotary dial phone receiver cradled between her ear and shoulder.

“No, I’m Tate. And it might sound like a boy’s name but I’m a girl... Seven years and three months... Don’t you know what the time is? It’s two-fifteen.”

“Tate, honey, who are you talking to?” Kirsten spoke softly, but the girl did not reply, and continued her telephone conversation, small back turned. Each sentence was a cursory reply, like little full-stops of sentences. “Yes. Yes... Yes, I like it very much, especially the garden... The birds... Yes, mummy’s here, and aunt Felicity too... No, not anymore... He’s not with mummy and I anymore... Not very long ago...” She was quiet for a moment, before spinning around, eyes wide. “Mummy, great-aunt Ada wants to tell you that the house belongs to us. Our old house, mummy, it doesn’t belong to daddy. You’re looking after me, so great-aunt Ada says we can still live there. And she says she knows aunt Felicity would never want to live in a house as old as this. She left her something useful behind the loose brick in the pantry. She say ..." and at this Tate paused, plump, pink lips pursing as though at the nettle of the unsugared lemonade Felicity and Kirsten had made as children. The strange words issued forth from the young girl. "You’re both of your trolley.”

At this last expression Felicity paled, and Kirsten’s face crumpled. She seized Felicity’s shoulder to steady herself. She slumped onto the nearest chair, hand sliding into Felicity’s hand, who pressed back reassuringly.

All her composure had fallen away freely, like apple shavings unchecked for prophetic swirls.





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