When Lawyer for Children Rebecca Eaton is invited by martinet Jacqueline Thompson to be her Junior Counsel in a murder/infanticide trial, Rebecca sees a path to achieving her ambition of becoming a partner in the law firm. How can she know this will trip a series of events that challenge all the beliefs and plans that give her world structure, purpose and peace?
Pressure mounts as a Family Court case escalates to tragedy. Rebecca is grief-stricken and feels unreasonably responsible. Her competence is questioned, media hound her…
But deep in the lush and rugged bush country of New Zealand, her intense involvement with a Māori family causes Rebecca to risk opening doors, to risk loving and being hurt …
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Read the first 4 chapters below:
Published 2021 (soft cover)
First published 2020 (ebook)
© Karen Zelas
The author asserts her moral rights in the work.
This book is copyright. Except for the purposes of fair reviewing, no part of this publication (whether it be in any ebook, digital, electronic or traditionally printed format, or otherwise) may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, digital or mechanical, including CD, DVD, ebook, PDF format, photocopying, recording, or any information and retrieval system, including via the internet, or by any means not yet discovered, without permission in writing from the publisher. Infringers of copyright render themselves liable to prosecution.
Publisher: Pūkeko Publications
Christchurch, New Zealand
This book was written with the support of the CompleteMS Programme run by the New Zealand Society of Authors (PEN NZ Inc) and supported by Creative New Zealand.
For Henry, my first reader
Resolutions is a novel, a work of fiction.
Lena Ruapeka and her children are inspired by real people, an amazing live-aboard family. But their characters, as I have developed them, show little likeness to the real people, and the story in which I have placed them is entirely fictional: none of the events is true. The Ruapeka whānau and its activities are fabrications of my imagination, and Jacktown does not exist. Similarities of any other characters to real people are completely coincidental.
I would like to thank the New Zealand Society of Authors for granting Resolutions a Complete Manuscript Assessment, which was undertaken by novelist Paddy Richardson; my thanks too to Paddy for her astute and constructive comments.
My appreciation to retired High Court Judge Stephen Erber, who read and commented upon relevant sections of text; any errors of omission or commission are entirely my own.
Thanks also to Melissa Climo for her technical assistance in the epublication of Resolutions, a task I could not have achieved without her.
Much gratitude too to my husband Henry Zelas, always ready to be a sounding board and to read and reread draft after draft.
Te Reo Māori
hine – girl, dear
hongi – to press foreheads/noses together and breathe the same air, in greeting
kai – food
kia ora – good health, greeting
mihi – traditional speech of introduction
mokopuna – grandchild/grandchildren
motu - island
Pākehā – foreigner, usually white person
ruru – morepork/NZ owl
tama – boy
tamāhine – girl
tena koe / tēnā kotou – welcome
taonga – treasure
whānau – extended family group
whare – house
wharenui – meeting house
ANZAC – Australia and New Zealand Army Corps
EQC – Earthquake Commission
GHB – Grievous Bodily Harm
bach – holiday cottage
It was all over by lunchtime. Rebecca flung a triumphant smirk across the courtroom to Trilby as she swept her client out into the foyer.
‘We won,’ Carole squeaked, and burst into tears.
‘No, you just got what is rightfully yours,’ said Rebecca. Some women may be unable to stand up for themselves, but she was not one of them. She had shown Trilby not to underestimate her. ‘And the children’s,’ she added.
‘You were wonderful. I don’t know how to thank you.’
‘Ms Eaton is doing it every day. Now, don’t let him see you cry.’ Carole’s mother took her by the arm. ‘Let’s go and have a nice cup of tea. Thank you, Ms Eaton.’
Rebecca watched the women walk towards the elevator, Carole glancing back over her shoulder, as if it took an effort of will to separate from her lawyer. The Family Court may be non-adversarial, but Rebecca had been a winner today. She glanced up to check the wall-clock. No time for self-congratulation. She had a lunch meeting. With Jacqueline Thompson, the first and only woman partner in their firm.
For “lunch meeting” read “unofficial interview” for a junior partnership. According to Tony Barrett, Rebecca had all but one of the male partners behind her – how he knew, she was unsure. They would vote for her, he assured. But Jacqueline …
She hurried along Oxford Terrace, beside the river, hobbled by her slim skirt. By rights, Rebecca should be able to rely on Jacqueline’s support. But some women were tough on other women. Perhaps they had fought to get where they were, and there was no way they were going to make it easy for some young thing to waltz straight in.
Her heels clacked on fresh seal. Her skin prickled and her heart played on her ribs like a gamelan, too much fortissimo for the energy expended. There was a lot at stake. Hereford Street, Worcester, almost to Gloucester Street, home to the Family Courts prior to the earthquakes. She had loved that old cream Oamaru stone building, wondered what would become of it. Oh, fuck! She stubbed her toe on a raised manhole cover, hopped, flexed her toes and hobbled on. By comparison, the new Justice Precinct on Lichfield was convenient, but lacking … lacking soul. Lacking tradition.
She stopped at the entrance to an Art Deco building, admired the curves, the stepped façade, terracotta stucco. Thank goodness it had not been demolished. And here it was, back in business. She smoothed her skirt, tucked her hair behind her ears. Lifted her chin. As she pushed through glass swing doors into the café, she scanned the muted interior. Damn. Jacqueline Thompson was there before her, seated by the window, gazing out at the street, the willows, the river. Had she witnessed Rebecca rushing towards the café?
Jacqueline turned her head, consulted her watch.
‘Right on time,’ Rebecca heard herself say. She would not be intimidated. ‘I was in court.’
‘Did you win?’
‘Winning is not the goal in Family Court.’ She gave a theatrical huff as she slid onto the chair opposite, placed her briefcase at her feet, folded her hands and smiled. ‘But I did. Win.’ She glanced around. ‘They’ve redone it nicely, haven’t they?’
‘The menu,’ said Jacqueline. ‘I don’t have long. You know what this is about, don’t you.’ A statement, the voice strong and deep. The voice of a much bigger woman. Rebecca lifted her eyes from the menu. Astounding. Such a presence.
‘I’m not sure I do.’
Jacqueline fixed her with hazel eyes, as if Rebecca were transparent, not a thought safe. ‘It could be one of several things, couldn’t it?’
Trilby. Rebecca’s gaze dropped to the menu, the words a blur. She knows about Trilby. No, impossible. But the grapevine of the legal community … Only one person needed to have … No, they were careful. Always. No one knew – except for her mother, who had no precise information. But Jacqueline no doubt had her spies. Suddenly it felt very warm in the café. ‘Mind if I take my jacket off?’ Without waiting for a reply, she wriggled out of her suit jacket and hung it on the back of the Bentwood, taking care it hung symmetrically. She leant back, wondering what was coming next. ‘I’m hoping …’
‘You’re an ambitious young woman.’
‘I work hard.’
‘Don’t we all? What I’m wondering is what more you’re prepared to do to get ahead.’ She waved away the wine waiter. ‘We need our order taken,’ she called after him.
Trilby – would Jacqueline call that trying to get ahead? ‘I’ve been with the firm a long time now,’ said Rebecca, hoping to regain control.
‘It’s a waste of your time and mine telling me what I already know.’
‘I’d like to be a partner one day.’
‘That’s also one of the things I know. Everyone wants to be a partner one day. Like growing up to marry a prince – in fashion I see these days. Or a rock star. I’ll have the chicken panini and a long black,’ she said to the young woman in black jeans, T-shirt, apron, hair, eyeliner and expression. ‘Fresh from a funeral, are we?’ cocking her head. ‘My guest will have the same. We’re in a hurry.’ She leaned closer to Rebecca, her pearls clacking against the edge of the table. ‘What are you willing to do to get what you want? Hard work is one thing. Putting up with me is another.’
‘I don’t follow.’
‘Well, you can’t lead all the time, not if you work with me.’
‘I …’ This was becoming like a game of croquet with the Queen of Hearts.
‘I’d like you to be my junior counsel in a case I have pending. Murder. Infanticide, to be exact. You’re developing a bit of a reputation, in your limited sphere of work.’
‘Is this a test?’
‘To see if I’m ready –’
‘Don’t get ahead of yourself. Your experience in family law might be useful in this case.’
‘I’d be happy to –’
‘No, you wouldn’t. It will be damned difficult. I can be damned difficult. And in the end, I get the glory. Think about it. Let me know by the end of the afternoon.’
Rebecca did not need the afternoon to decide. It would be crazy to bypass such an opportunity.
So why was her concentration all over the place?
John Trilby QC. Barrister Sole. Located in the new Oxford Chambers, by the river. She had to concede he was handsome, in a worldly way. Hair longish, silver, swept back – very European – inviting fingers to rake through it. He was touching sixty. A little older than her father would be now …
And Prissie, an oozing gash so close to her left eye. Rebecca shuddered. She had made herself late this morning, taking the yowling bundle of muscle and fur to the vet …
It was easier to think about Trilby. She smiled, remembering the comment of the mediating judge: ‘Perhaps you should advise your client, Mr Trilby, that he can’t have everything his way.’
Nor could Trilby.
‘Ms Eaton.’ Trilby had jerked his leonine head. A summons. ‘A moment, if you please.’ A glimmer of uncertainty in his smile had pleased her. He had led her into a side room during the morning recess.
‘Rebecca, I’m truly sorry about tonight. But I can’t disappoint Laura. Truly I can’t. She booked the tickets.’ He reached for her waist. ‘I’d rather be with you, believe me.’ But Rebecca stepped out of his orbit. ‘Don’t be like that.’ He pouted, then, with a half-smile, twitched his eyebrows.
Rebecca was not moved. ‘Wednesday is ours. Sacrosanct.’
‘You know, your eyes change colour when you’re mad. It makes me so –’
‘Don’t give me that shit!’
‘I’ll make it up to you.’
‘When? Call me. Give me a definite. Before you go to the concert. I don’t have time to languish at home on the off chance you’ll call. Now,’ she brandished her client’s file, ‘if you haven’t yet made your man see sense, do it in the next two minutes.’ She had turned on her heel, jerked the door to behind her …
It had not always been like this – the change left her on shaky ground, wondering if she should Duck, Cover and Hold.
Trilby’s reliability and predictability had cossetted her through the upheaval of her father’s death, her mother’s breakdown and her own consequent moods and self-doubt. She loved him – in a way; not a great passion with a future, but a comforting and reassuring present. And then this.
Last time they were together had been her birthday. In her apartment. No way could they be seen in a restaurant. Chopin’s Nocturne in C played softly. Rebecca had laid the table with a white embroidered cloth and linen napkins that had been stitched by her gran. She was lighting a tall candle when Trilby’s habitual Morse-like rap sounded on the front door. Extinguishing the match with a flick, she strode to the door. Trilby entered, holding out a sweating magnum of champagne, as if it was an infant in wet Huggies. Rebecca laughed.
Trilby leaned over the top of the bottle, which sported a large bow around its throat, to place a chaste kiss on her lips. ‘That’s a placeholder for later,’ he said. His eyes were smiling. ‘Happy birthday.’ He kissed her again, longer this time.
Rebecca took the bottle. ‘Shall we open it now?’ She passed him two flutes. ‘You do the honours. I’d put a hole in the ceiling.’
Trilby removed his jacket, hung it over the back of a dining chair and removed a speck of fluff from the lapel.
‘Like an apron?’ she asked. ‘Don’t point it at the window. Or the walls.’
‘Trust me. I know what I’m doing.’
She put an arm around his waist and squeezed. ‘It’s just, you know … the new plaster and paint. I waited so long.’
‘Low priority, I know. Still …’
From nowhere, Prissie leapt onto the bench, and ground her face against Rebecca’s.
‘That cat!’ Trilby flapped a hand, and Prissie redirected her attention. ‘Go on, shoo!’ The cat stood her ground.
‘You’ll never get used to her, will you?’ Rebecca lifted Prissie from the bench, gave her a quick cuddle and lowered her to the floor, where she tangled in and out their legs. ‘Hungry? Talking to you, not Prissie. Since it’s my birthday, I’m cooking what I like. Prawns. And a Vietnamese salad. You okay with garlic tonight?’
‘Sounds delicious. I’ll help.’
‘You don’t know one end of a knife from the other,’ she laughed.
‘Do so. You’ll see.’
‘I’ll teach you to stir-fry the prawns. That’s safer. You’ll like seeing them turn from grey to red.’
‘Don’t they come red? Really?’ He passed a flute of champagne to Rebecca. ‘To you, Becca. Many happy birthdays, my love.’ He linked his arm with hers and they drank awkwardly. Rebecca giggled, bubbles fizzing against her skin.
‘To us,’ she said.
‘It’s going to be strange appearing against you next week,’ she said, as they turned to the business of preparing the meal.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll be gentle.’
‘Huh. No need for that.’ She gave him a flick with a tea towel. ‘I’d like to know how a QC comes to have a client in the Family Court. Seems like overkill to me.’
‘It seemed a good idea at the time.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘You want the truth? I’ll tell you the truth: I was curious.’
‘Oh, bugger!’ Rebecca examined her left index finger, a piece of red nail hanging by a thread. ‘Watch out for a slice of fingernail in the salad.’
Trilby went pale. ‘Are you all right?’
‘Are you all right?’ Rebecca pulled off the piece of nail. ‘Maybe more champagne?’
The aroma of butter and garlic engulfed them as they ate.
‘The prawns are yum,’ said Rebecca.
‘Thanks to the sous-chef.’
‘Thanks to the chef’s tuition.’ Rebecca split open another prawn, sucked at the juice that spilled onto her fingers.
‘The salad’s not bad either,’ said Trilby.
‘I could eat it every day – if I could be bothered making it. Fresh lime, ginger,’ she licked her fingers, ‘chilli, garlic. Coriander.’
Trilby rinsed his fingers in a finger bowl, then dried them with his napkin and dabbed his lips. He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket and withdrew a small box. Across the table, he took her hand, wiped it too with his napkin and placed the box in her palm, closing her fingers around it.
‘Open it,’ he said. ‘Go on.’
‘But I’ve had one present already.’
‘Who’s counting? Open it.’
A pale square-cut sapphire twinkled up at Rebecca.
‘It matches your eyes.’ He smiled a gentle smile …
Now Rebecca hefted one of several briefs piled on her desk. There was a stream of emails to sift and respond to, phone calls to return. That was the problem with being cut off for a morning: the world did not hold its breath. People went on with their lives, creating havoc, committing financial or emotional suicide, expecting her to cut them down – before it was too late.
One of the missed calls was from Angela Berry, at the Family Court.
‘An interesting one here. Thought you might like it.’ Angela chuckled, a hoarse warm sound. ‘It’s complicated,’ she breathed down the phone.
‘Wouldn’t just give it to anyone.’
‘Who are the parents’ lawyers?’
‘Mum hasn’t got one yet. For the father, Jack Russell – I mean, Roselle.’
Rebecca snorted. Roselle. He had a name for representing minor crims: low-ranked dealers, GHB, youths too stupid to do the job properly and get away with it. He snapped and yapped and worried ankles, and got a significant number of his clients off – an earnest charm about him that encouraged people to give his entitled youth another chance.
‘But this is a custody case.’
Ange sighed. ‘You tell me.’ Rebecca imagined the shrug of her ample shoulders.
‘Has he been inside, the father?’
‘Not that I know of. I suppose a mate has recommended Roselle. Anyway, do you want it, or do you don’t? He’d wipe the floor with a newcomer.’
‘Sounds like an offer I can’t refuse – the second today.’
‘Lucky you. Keeps life interesting. I’ll send the papers over. Usual rates. And expenses. What about a drink after work Friday? River Bar?’
‘Yeah. Sounds good. But I’ll have to let you know, Ange.’
Tony Barrett stuck his head round her open door, long piano-player’s fingers curled around the edge, flaxen hair flopping over his forehead and a conspiratorial gleam in his eye.
‘Must go, Ange. Cheers.’ Rebecca replaced the phone in its stand.
‘How was lunch with the dragon?’
‘I’m still reeling. Fuck, she’s tough. Hard to tell if she was deliberately trying to wind me up. But you know, deep down, I think she has a sense of humour.’
Tony laughed, slithered into the room and sat in her best chair. She was pleased they had managed to remain friends.
‘She does her best to keep it hidden,’ Tony said.
‘Took a poke at herself as well.’
‘So you liked her. But did she like you?’
‘I’m not sure. She made me feel like a probationer. Wants to know if I’d like to be her junior counsel in an infanticide case she has coming up.’
‘Hey, well done you.’
‘Make or break, do you think? She wants my answer this afternoon. What’s the time now?’
‘You’re not thinking of declining?’
‘No. I just want to be thought to have given the invitation intelligent consideration.’
Tony giggled, a ridiculously high-pitched sound to emerge from a big man. They had looked good together, Rebecca remembered. She could even wear heels if she wanted.
‘Well, don’t overdo the reticence,’ he said. ‘A woman spurned …’
‘What about a man spurned?’
‘All but healed, dare I say it? And you were right, of course. It’s better this way.’
Don’t fuck your workmates – an unwritten rule. And, as an excuse for avoiding a basic incompatibility: Tony wanted kids, Rebecca did not.
He hoisted himself out of the armchair. ‘You’d better go and do what you have to do, before she changes her mind.’ He slipped from the room, deceptively light on his feet.
Rebecca stood up from her desk, put on her jacket. Checked herself in the mirror inside the cupboard door. Flicked a brush through her straight bob, curving the ends around her jawline, shaking her head slightly to lighten the lie of the fringe. Handsome, rather than beautiful, if she were to call herself anything. Like Jacqueline – and look where she sat. She reapplied the lipstick she had chewed off in the course of the afternoon.
What would Jacqueline expect her to bring to their first meeting, an indication of enthusiasm? She glanced around the office. She had no relevant papers. Should she take Butterworth’s Family Law? Would that seem presumptuous? She settled for a lined pad and a pen and left the room.
Outside Jacqueline Thompson’s door she paused and took a deep breath. Jacqueline had approached her; she wanted something from Rebecca. But Rebecca also wanted something from Jacqueline. It was hard to imagine Jacqueline had ever been young, an aspiring lawyer at the mercy of the opinions and prejudices of others. To look at her now, you’d think she’d been born wizened and wise. Rebecca wanted what she had, and quickly. She raised a hand to knock, nodded at Jacqueline’s legal secretary, who instantly returned her attention to her computer and the stack of papers beside it, as if she had been caught snooping.
Rebecca’s knuckles barely brushed the dark wood, when Jacqueline’s contralto reverberated.
‘Come.’ Rumour had it Jacqueline had a rich contralto when loosened by a good malt.
Rebecca turned the doorknob and entered, taking in everything with new interest, as though one day it could all be hers: the view of Hagley Park, the shelves of legal texts, the large leather-topped desk – no computer here. Despite the few tasteful objets d’art displayed to advantage, the room had an austere air, but one which was calm and comfortable. A place for working, not entertaining, nor for impressing clients or colleagues.
Jacqueline was dwarfed behind the desk, owl-like in spectacles. She did not raise her head.
Rebecca surveyed the choice of chairs. There seemed no obvious place for her. In the end she chose the chair nearest the desk, a stuffed leather chair that exhaled a puff of air, like a dolphin, when she sat.
‘Ha,’ said Jacqueline.
Rebecca shuffled forwards, perched on the front edge, back straight, knees together – her mother would approve. Legal pad on her thigh and pen at the ready.
‘How I hate these glasses.’ Jacqueline dropped them on the desk and peered up at Rebecca. ‘But you’re blurry without them, and that won’t do.’ She rubbed both eyes with balled fists. ‘I had to take out my contacts.’ She replaced the spectacles on the end of her stubby nose. ‘Now,’ she said, ‘what is your verdict?’
‘You know I’ll work you hard. You’ll do all the donkey work. And this case will have priority over anything else for the duration.’
‘Yes. I do have a few things on the go, that I must complete, but I’ll ensure they don’t obstruct the progress of your case. I’ve done very little criminal work. It’ll extend my experience.’
‘You can’t do nothing but family law forever, not if you want to get ahead. Nor if you’re going to bring in a respectable income.’ The slap of a hand on leather. ‘The firm needs all its lawyers to bring in a respectable income. People get disgruntled if they feel they’re carrying other staff members.’ She paused and stared at Rebecca, making her feel like a parasite.
‘You won’t find you’re carrying me. My experience with children and families …’ Rebecca tugged at her skirt as she slid backwards. Now she understood the placement of chairs.
‘Malvers. The case. The parents are charged with killing an eighteen-month child. Their child. I’m defending them.’
Her Adam’s apple worked up and down in her throat. Talk about jumping in the deep end. She glanced up at Jacqueline.
‘Still want it?’ The eyes, magnified by spectacles, bored into Rebecca. In this light they were green, like Prissie’s.
‘Of course. I just …’
Jacqueline pointed at a box file on the corner of the desk. ‘Take that. And while you are familiarising yourself with it, you may as well file the documents in ring-binders. It’ll save my secretary some work. Mary. She’ll give you the binders.’ She stared down at the file spread before her, while Rebecca took in the quiet elegance of her sea-green suit. Everything about Jacqueline spoke of confidence, money, status. How different from her mother …
After twenty seconds of silence, it was clear the meeting was over.
The file from the Family Court arrived the following morning and Rebecca speed-read the documents: affadavits from parents, a counsellor, sundry other witnesses. Best to get on with it quickly, before Jacqueline started making unreasonable demands upon her time.
Ruapeka was their name: father Hemi, mother Helena. Two children: Jacob, eleven, and Manawa, nine. From Jacktown, outside Greymouth. A West Coast family? Ange had not mentioned that. How could Rebecca go over to The Coast, especially now? Jacqueline would never agree. She would have to return the brief. She dialled Angela Berry’s number. Engaged. Five minutes later, she dialled again. Same.
After lunch, she tried once more, this time leaving a message for Angela to ring after 4.00. Until then she had a seminar to take with the Family Law class at the University. High in the Law block – the thought made her pulse race. What if …? That frisson of fear. Ever since the quakes. But she knew she would forget their vulnerability, once she started engaging with the students. And she did. There was the usual mix: the keen, the challenging, the hungover; those merely aiming to pass exams and those who would clearly prefer to be elsewhere. The role of Lawyer for Children, her topic, came easily from her own experience.
‘The Lawyer for Children is appointed at times by the Family Court to advise the presiding judge as to the needs of a child or children whose care and wellbeing are in dispute. The children are the lawyer’s clients – not either of the parents, nor the Oranga Tamariki, the old Ministry for Child, Youth and Family. The lawyer will meet with the children to ascertain their needs and wishes, and usually gather information from each parent and from other relevant sources, eg schools, or fosterparents, or the social worker. The children’s needs must be at the core of the investigation, and of any opinions or conclusions presented to the judge …’
‘Any messages?’ she asked Anne Courtenay at reception on her return. Jack Roselle would appreciate a call. Could she bring the car in for servicing tomorrow by 8.30am? Max Tilman returned her call. Her mother rang and said she didn’t need Rebecca to ring back. The cat was ready for collection … Nothing from Ange.
Rebecca rang Max Tilman. But not Jack Roselle, Hemi Ruapeka’s solicitor. Nor her mother.
Just before six o’clock, she left the office, arms piled high with the Malvers and Ruapeka files, two ring-binders and her brief case. What else was there to do, home alone on a Wednesday evening? There was a good red waiting for her, as yet unopened on the kitchen bench. She had bought it for Trilby. His loss.
But first, the cat.
Prissie yowled her protest and Rebecca’s chest hollowed, as if she were to blame for the consequences of her cat’s encounter with a feline thug. Prissie – Priscilla – was a handful, a moggie whose mother had a fling with a half-Burmese, giving her sleek mottled fur, an elevated sense of her own importance and a flair for conversation. She was again in the cat-bag, still somewhat cross-eyed and wobbly, and very vocal.
‘Lucky it wasn’t her eye,’ Maria the vet nurse said.
Rebecca shivered, her limbs taut. She needed a run.
She needed to feel the cool evening on her skin; push her body through the molecules of damp air and suck them into her lungs. Pump her legs and arms till her skin was slick. Dissipate the heat build-up from the tensions of her day, as much as from the exertion. Think things through: Trilby, Jacqueline, her workload, the responsibility of caring for other beings. Her mother. How could she look out for her mother, if she refused to answer the phone? She had promised her dad that she would. This morning her mother’s mobile had gone straight to voice-mail. What was the message in that? An image of Jacqueline staunch behind her desk popped into mind. The contrast. Her mother angry perhaps at Rebecca’s interference in her life; she had been resentful, even paranoid when she first came out of hospital. Or was her mother showing nascent and unmodulated independence? Or just being plain difficult. Rebecca was the only family here to keep an eye on her. She would not let her father down.
But this evening Rebecca could not run. She placed her cat in her favourite armchair and crouched before her, making little soothing noises and rubbing her index finger under her chin and down onto her chest: up and down, up and down. Prissie extended her neck, exerting a little pressure against the finger, but did not purr. Tears sprang in Rebecca’s eyes and she made no attempt to wipe them away. She had never imagined she would feel like this – so responsible, so uncertain. So scared of losing what she loved.
Perhaps she should lock Prissie inside at night. Keep her safe.
But Prissie was a cat, for heaven’s sake. You put cats out at night. Her parents always did. Everyone did. She heard them out there, in the yard, over the fences, out on the street. You cannot take risk out of a cat’s life. Hers was a ground floor apartment, with a cat-flap into the yard. Prissie had to be allowed to come and go at will.
Rebecca stood and stretched: shoulders, neck, thighs, calves, pressing against the living room wall. Walked to the counter and unscrewed the top of the red she had selected for Trilby. Wafted the bottle under her nose and inhaled. Oaky. Berries. The warm scent of summer. She placed two wine glasses on the counter, locked the cat flap. Then crossed to the door opposite hers, taking care that Prissie did not escape. She pressed the doorbell; from the interior, the chime of “Red River Valley”. Beside the bell, the name: Dr Gary Wood. Approaching footsteps. The door opened.
‘Hello, Pet,’ he mumbled through the jersey he was pulling over his head. ‘How’s our Prissie doing?’
‘Come and see for yourself. I have a pinot breathing.’
‘How can I refuse?’ He patted his pocket for a key, then pulled his door closed. ‘You’re home early.’
‘Had to pick Prissie up by six. She’s still a bit groggy. If she starts tearing at the stitches, I have to put this on her.’ Rebecca brandished a wide plastic cone.
‘She’ll love that.’
Rebecca snorted. Prissie howled for attention.
‘Comfort her, Gary? I can’t stand it when she cries like that. Like a baby.’
Gary perched on the arm of Prissie’s chair, spoke to her gently, clucking and crooning. She leaned into his cream Aran jersey, a rumble of purr in her throat. ‘She’s all right,’ he said. ‘How’s that pinot? I can hear it panting from here.’
Rebecca laughed, emerging from behind the counter, a full glass in each hand. ‘Been foraging in the op shop again?’ nodding at his Aran handknit.
‘Great for retro. But, no. I knitted it. In the ’80s. In the Mark years. He was a great knitter. I gave it away when he left.’ He gazed into space. ‘Not the jersey. Knitting. I’d get too … sentimental.’
‘Hmm. I never learned to knit. My gran tried, but I was not a dextrous student. The thought of completing something that big …’ She shook her head.
‘Perseverance is the key. As for anything else.’
‘Yes, well, I pick and choose what I persevere with.’ She dropped onto the couch and curled her legs beneath her. ‘I’ve been asked by one of the senior partners to be her junior in a murder trial. Infanticide.’
‘Congratulations. Sounds a great opportunity.’
‘You should have heard how she sold it, though. How she sold herself, really. She couldn’t have been more discouraging if she’d tried. She’s known as a tyrant.’
‘You’d be a match for her any day.’
Rebecca snorted again. ‘Thanks – I think. But she will demand my undivided attention, like Prissie, and I’ll have to appear to give it to her. If I can impress her, I’ll be one step closer to becoming a partner. But I can’t compromise my Family Court work.’ She lifted her glass. ‘Cheers.’ She sipped, then sighed. ‘It’s for me to work out – before tomorrow.’
By bedtime, Rebecca had decided she would not return the West Coast file. It would make a change to get out of town. Gary would see to Prissie; she would be much better by then. Even cats like Prissie do not seek sympathy, like humans. When they are better, they are better.
But Rebecca did not look forward to telling Jacqueline of her excursion.
‘I need to go over to the West Coast for a couple of days, as soon as possible,’ Rebecca announced the following morning. It seemed unwise to be diffident.
‘This is no time for taking leave.’
‘No, no. Work. There is a family I must see. I’m Lawyer for the Children. I can take the file with me – the Malvers file. I don’t imagine there will be anything else to do in the evenings.’
‘Get someone else to do it.’
‘No, I’ve thought it through. I can manage both.’
‘A phone call will do. Custody, is it? The number?’ she asked, reaching for the telephone.
‘They’ve given it to me because it’s complex. I already have the papers. It won’t impinge on your case. I won’t let it.’
‘Well,’ Jacqueline looked dubious, ‘see you don’t.’
‘I’ll let you know when I’m going.’
Rebecca closed the door behind her and leaned back against it, taking in a deep breath. Exhale. Inhale. It would not be easy working with Jacqueline, but she had won the first battle. She just needed to be clear-thinking and firm; stand her ground.
Now, Max Tilman. He had been distraught on the phone, when she eventually returned his call. She hoped he would be more contained today. He was a pain in the butt, but she did have a certain sympathy for him. His wife put every possible obstacle in the way of access to his three children, Dana, Darren and Ilsa, and he was too limp to stand up to her. Now, he said, she was claiming the children did not want to see him.
Max was in the waiting room, in the corner, looking small, a magazine unopened on his lap. He did not seem to notice her. She wondered how long he had been sitting there. Could have been days. No, no, not.
‘Mr Tilman. Max.’
Startled, he raised his head, glanced about, as if he had not expected to find himself there, in her waiting room. His pale eyes swam with helplessness. Some people seemed to invite bullying.
‘Max. Come with me.’ She made a hand gesture, as if to a dog, and he followed, shoulders slumped and she immediately felt a twinge of guilt. He stopped in the doorway to her office, arms by his sides. He had lost weight.
‘Come in, Max.’ She gestured to a comfortable chair. He really was a dishrag. But a likeable dishrag – his children loved him, and he came alive in their company. A different person. She had seen him with his children here in her office and in the small apartment he had rented to accommodate them when they stayed over every second weekend.
Dana 8, Darren 6 and Ilsa 3. The light in their faces at the first glimpse of their father on the day she had transported them there. Ilsa had run to him, squealing with delight and leapt into his arms, while Dana pressed her face into his father’s jersey without a word. Darren looked as if he would never stop bouncing – ‘Dad! Dad! Look at my ship. I made it for you.’ Rebecca stood on the threshold, observing. Tears welled in Max’s eyes, while his laugh choked in his throat. It was all Rebecca could do to stop herself joining in the group hug.
She smiled at Max now and received a flicker in return. How little it took. How grateful he seemed.
‘Not much to smile about at the moment?’
He shook his head.
She tapped the end of a pen against her lips and pulled a yellow pad towards her. ‘Tell me what Ilsa – I mean, Ailsa’s up to now.’ Ailsa, Ilsa. ‘I mean, what are the difficulties you’re having currently?’ His ex-wife Ailsa had put every possible obstacle in the way of the regular access visits finally agreed in the Family Court.
‘She says that, after last weekend with me, Ilsa cried when she put her to bed and said she’d missed Mummy.’
‘That’s pretty normal. Ilsa’s only three. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to see you.’
‘But that’s what Ailsa’s saying.’
She was not supposed to take sides with either parent, but sometimes it was very hard not to.
‘She says the children, none of them, want to come to my place anymore.’ Tears spilled, trickled down the grooves either side his nose unheeded. Rebecca hated it when fathers cried. She had never seen hers cry until Gran died, and it had shocked her, frightened her, made the world feel a shaky place. Did Max’s children see this sad-sack man who now sat in her office, or was he restored while they were with him?
‘Is that what they say to you?’ she asked.
‘Ailsa won’t let me speak to them. They were supposed to have dinner with me last night. We always go to Burger King on Wednesdays. For a treat. They love it.’
Rebecca nodded. Just talking about the children, Max was starting to perk up. She would have to speak to Ailsa. Get things back into the usual routine before it was too late. Before it became chronic. She could not allow these children to be deprived of their father, nor he of them. Could not imagine her own childhood deprived of her father. She pictured Dana’s brown eyes that captured light like dark pools, the flicker of her smile that made Rebecca want to squeeze her and tell her everything would turn out all right in the end.
As Rebecca ushered Max out, her phone rang. ‘I need to take that, Max. I’ll ring you when I have progress to report.’ She squeezed his elbow and gave him a gentle nudge on his way. Once again, he became a shuffling clothes-horse. It was too painful. She turned away, raised a hand to Anne, who was mouthing, ‘Your mother,’ and hurried to her room. What could be so important that her mother had to ring during working hours?
The phone stopped as Rebecca reached for it – her mother could not even wait the thirty seconds it had taken to close the door and pick up. Should she ring back now, or later? Would her mother be at home, or out and about? She dialled her home number and the answerphone picked up. Then rang her mobile.
‘I was waiting for you to call me back yesterday, but you didn’t.’
‘You said not to.’
‘I meant if it was inconvenient.’
Had it been inconvenient? She could have made time if she wanted. ‘You need to say what you mean, Mum. I can’t read your mind.’
‘I know that.’
Did she? ‘Was there something particular? Something important?’
‘Can I talk to my daughter only about important things?’ Rhetorical pause. ‘Of course there was something particular, and, yes, it is important – to me anyway.’
‘I … I’m sorry. I didn’t mean … Are you all right?’
‘More than all right – at least I was until ... I thought you might like to know I was placed second in a poetry competition. A national one.’
‘That’s brilliant, Mum.’ Placed in a poetry competition? Her mother? She had read a few of her poems, but … but then, what did she know? ‘Clever you. Congrats. You should’ve rung again last night to tell me.’
‘I thought, I thought you’d have returned my call, if you were interested.’ There was the accusatory whine that made Rebecca’s skin crawl; it prodded and provoked her, inviting her to be as spiteful as her mother expected. She forced herself to be silent and wait.
‘Besides, I can’t usually get you on Wednesday nights.’
Her mother might well think that; Rebecca pulled the plug on the landline when Trilby was there, as he should have been the previous evening.
‘Anyway, that’s really good news,’ said Rebecca. ‘It’s always nice to hear good news. Can I read it, your poem, sometime? Email it to me. Will you?’
Only in the last year had her mother become less secretive about her writing. Although Rebecca did not understand some of the poems she had read, they hinted at a new side to her mother, a depth and sensitivity. It was unnerving to find she had so little knowledge of the woman who was her mother.
‘I thought you might come for dinner at the weekend and I can show you. If it’s convenient.’
‘I’d like it to be convenient.’
‘No excuse. You still have to eat.’ The battles they had over food when she was little.
It was only last autumn she discovered there could be pleasure in having her mother cook for her. They had had a rapprochement, no, rather, a new approximation. A tentative exploration, as her mother’s health improved after the severe breakdown suffered following Rebecca’s father’s sudden death nearly two years ago.
Her father had talked with Rebecca several times about her mother’s illness, each time revealing information that both offered explanations and raised new questions she dared not ask. The first episode commenced as Postnatal Depression when Rebecca was born and was so incapacitating she was unsafe to care for her new baby. Rebecca’s two grandmothers took it in turn to keep house and look after Rebecca and her brother James, while their father was at work. Through Rebecca’s infancy, while her relationship with her father deepened, her mother remained a distant figure. Only recently had new possibilities arisen. Did Rebecca dare to let her mother in? Could she do so without losing herself?
‘I’ll let you know,’ she said. ‘I’ll try. Truly.’
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