To Her Door.
This one's for MagTwi78. She's one of the sweetest, kindest gals around. Happy Birthday, mate. Thank you for your friendship and for the sunshine you bring to so many people's lives.
Hadley Hemingway stepped in to work her beta-magic on this, even though I left it to the last minute. Thank you, my dear.
She said, "I'm not standing by, to watch you slowly die / So watch me walking, out the door."
He comes home late.
Bella tells the girls to eat their tea, watching the gravy congeal on her own plate. It's been sweltering in their little house since the sun broke free of the copse of eucalyptus trees that shade the house in the mornings. Sticking a leg of lamb in the oven this afternoon only made it worse. Sweat trickles down Bella's spine and gathers behind her knees. Hair curls at her temples, the way it always does when the humidity gets this high.
Edward always thought it was cute, the way those curls sprang to life with the threat of rain. He'd call her his pretty little barometer and he'd grin as he tapped her nose. He always had to tap the barometer that hung in his dad's kitchen to check it wasn't jammed.
Bella pushes the hair away from her face. There'll be a storm tonight.
"You no 'ungry, Mummy?"
Bella forces a smile for her daughters. "I'll eat mine when Daddy comes home. Alice, you need to eat your broccoli, too, okay? Not just the meat."
Alice scrunches up her nose but doesn't argue. Bella gives her two-year-old a thumbs up as she shovels a forkful of the vegetable into her little mouth.
"Where is Daddy?" Rosie looks at the clock on the dining room wall. She can't read it, not really. She just knows her Daddy's supposed to be home when the big hand points up and the little hand points down.
"Not time yet," she decides. She doesn't understand "clockwise," doesn't realise the hands have gone right past six o'clock and on towards seven.
"You keep eating, Rosie." The vinyl tablecloth tries to hang onto the water glass and it makes a sticky-sounding noise as Bella lifts it to her mouth.
He hasn't been home on time for nearly two weeks. Not since they heard there'd be cutbacks at the mill. He reckons it'll help, getting on his supervisor's good side. So he spends his evenings in the pub, buying rounds they can't afford, trying to secure his job. While Bella prods the girls through their dinner, bath, and bed routine, then takes her seat at their crappy little dining table, feeling every bit the dutiful housewife waiting for her husband to come home. She wonders if she should start wearing a ruffle-trimmed apron, because it certainly feels like she's slipped back into the bad old days of the 1950's.
"I'm finished," Rosie declares.
Alice drops her fork onto the melamine plate. "I finis too."
The girls whinge a bit as their mum chivvies them into eating a few more pieces of broccoli and a couple of bites of baked potato. Bella doesn't know if she actually cares about them eating their veggies, or whether she's just trying to prolong the time they're all at the table, hoping Edward will come home before she concedes defeat and declares it bathtime.
He doesn't come, though, and the evening drags on as usual. Bella sits by the bath as the girls paste their faces and hair with bubbles, reminding them to wash under their arms and behind their ears. She dries them and helps them into their pyjamas, then works a comb through their hair. She tackles Alice's dark curls first, then Rosie's blonde wisps.
In the girls' bedroom, Bella tucks them under the sheets—it's too hot for anything warmer—and sits on the worn carpet between their beds. She reads Koala Lou and The Ballad of Skip and Nell and every other book on their shelf until the girls' eyelids are heavy and her voice is hoarse.
When she can't read any longer, Bella kisses her daughters' soft cheeks and strokes their hair as she tell them she loves them. She turns off the lamp and stays there on the floor, letting the tears fall silently as the girls yawn and wriggle and eventually fall asleep.
Bella closes their door and prays he won't be too loud when he comes in.
She walks to the back door of their little fibro two bedroom and stands there, looking out over the yard. The lights from inside pool on the grass, which is scattered with the girls' toys and in desperate need of a mow. The Hills Hoist is laden with the three loads of laundry Bella did this morning. She knows she should bring the clothes in before the rain starts, but right now she just doesn't have the energy.
There's no breeze, not a whisper. In the distance, lightning jags across across the sky. Bella counts: one, two, three, four, five, six… until she hears the rumble of thunder. She can't remember exactly what the time lag is supposed to mean. Is it five hundred metres for every second? She's not sure. Whatever it means, the storm's still a ways away. The thunder sounds almost gentle, like it's just someone a few streets over moving their furniture around.
That's what her grandma used to say when she quaked at the sound, isn't it? "It's just God moving his furniture around, Bella. Don't fuss."
Thoughts of Gran have Bella looking over her shoulder, searching out her picture in the cluster of frames on top of the television cabinet. There she is, smiling out over the room. It makes Bella's heart ache—she misses her grandmother so much.
Bella's gaze moves on, wandering over the family snaps, the baby photos, Rosie's preschool picture, until it lands on her wedding photo.
Is that really me? she wonders. She hardly recognises herself.
She's older now, of course—but not by much. And there's the extra five kilos she has left over from two pregnancies. But it's the hopefulness in her younger self's smile she can't connect with. She can't remember what that feels like, to have the whole world at her feet and her future at her fingertips.
Her focus shifts to Edward's face. That smile, those eyes. She can't see their colour from here, but her brain fills in what the eye can't. His green eyes. The colour of fallen gum leaves, when they've gone all dry and crackly under the summer sun. It's that stage when you can crumble them in your fingertips and the smell of eucalyptus will stay on your hands all day.
Closing her eyes, Bella wipes away the moisture gathered on her cheeks. We had no idea, back then. They were full of hope and youthful arrogance. So what that they were only nineteen? They had this big, huge, all-consuming love and they knew it could get them through anything.
And what did it matter that they'd been married only three months when Bella fell pregnant? There'd be time to finish her nursing degree later on.
It's only been four and half years since that photograph was taken. So much has changed since then.
Two kids, no uni degree, and she's no longer certain that love is enough.
The rains starts about eight o'clock, drumming impatient fingers on the roof and windows. Bella closes the back door and turns on the television. She flicks through the channels but nothing catches her attention so she switches it off again. She curls up on the couch, staring at the window. She watches the rain droplets throw themselves against the glass.
A little after eight-thirty, she hears Edward come through the front gate. He's singing, some old Paul Kelly tune his dad was fond of. He's got a nice singing voice—just not when he's had a skinful. He's offkey and too loud, and she rushes to the door to shush him before he can wake the girls.
"Hey, baby." He grins down at her, his eyes bleary with drink. His clothes are saturated; water drips from his hair and slides down his face.
For the hundredth time, Bella thanks God that he's not a mean drunk. He's loud and lazy and he gets kind of handsy, but he's not aggressive—never has been.
"Come on, you." She speaks softly, hoping he'll get the hint to do the same. She helps him take off his shirt and hangs it over the back of a chair.
He kicks off his boots and slumps into a chair at the table while she grabs him a towel. His head's sort of floppy on his neck—he's probably had at least half a dozen schooners. Bella doesn't let herself work out how much that would've cost him.
"You hungry?" Bella opens the oven to retrieve the lamb roast she's been keeping warm for him.
"Not for food." He pinches her bum as she sets his plate in front of him.
There was a time Bella would've found his drunken antics cute. When that smile he's wearing would have her stripping them both from their clothes and letting him screw her on the kitchen table.
But after weeks of this, of him coming home late during the week, then drinking himself into oblivion in front of the television all weekend, she's had enough.
"Don't touch me," she tells him, swatting his hand away.
He pulls his keys and wallet from the pocket of his sodden shorts and tosses them onto the table, and Bella wonders where he left his ute tonight. Did he drive to the pub or is it still parked out the front of the mill? He's not dumb enough to get behind the wheel like this—another thing to be thankful for. But it's hard to feel any real gratitude right now, when she knows she's going to have to wake the girls up early and bundle them into the car while they complain in their sleepy voices, so she can drive him to work tomorrow morning.
Bella sits down with Edward while he eats, trying to not to cringe at every clang of cutlery against china. Her own dinner is in the bin, untouched; her appetite is non-existent.
His plate is half-cleared when Edward stops eating, dropping his cutlery onto the table. Gravy and specks of broccoli splatter across the table cloth.
Bella starts to get up, intending to grab a cloth from the sink, when Edward's hand closes around her wrist.
She looks at her hand in his. It's shaking. No, it's him. Edward is shaking.
"I'm sorry, Bella." And he's crying.
Bella's only seen her husband cry once before. He was dry-eyed at their wedding, and the first time he held each of his daughters—even at his grandmother's funeral. But when they buried Mick Newton two years ago, she saw a few tears slip down his cheeks before he swiped them away. She remembers thinking it was a testament to how unbearably tragic it was: Mick took his own life a few days shy of his 21st birthday.
Edward lets go of her wrist, drops his head into his hands. His shoulders quake with his silent sobs.
She closes her eyes. Anticipates what he's about to say.
"I–I got laid off." He sounds so broken. "I'm so sorry, baby."
All the words are there, lined up in Bella's mind: We'll manage. I can get some work. Something else will come up. We'll get through this.
But she doesn't say anything. Because right now, she doesn't believe a word of it.
For two months, Edward keeps up the pretence of looking for work. And it is a pretence, because who's going to hire him in this town? When there's now thirty other blokes out looking for work, too?
But he goes down to Centrelink and applies for jobs he won't get, won't even be considered for, and others that he wouldn't take if he was.
He's worked at the timber mill since he left school at sixteen. His dad works there, and so did his grandfather. Bella's dad did, too, until he had his accident. That's life in this town. Has been for over a century. The boys work in the mill. The girls marry boys who work in the mill, and have fat little babies who will grow up to work in the mill.
Except the mill is losing money hand over fist. A hundred blokes laid off last year. Then Edward was one of thirty more they had to let go. And they say it's not looking good. This time next year, there might not even be a mill. God knows what will become of this town then. There's nothing here, no reason to stay, if there's no longer a mill.
Edward logs off the computer, his fortnightly quota of job applications met. He doesn't even check his watch or wonder if his wife is expecting him home as he steps out of the air-conditioned Centrelink branch. Numb to the hot westerly blowing down the main street of town, he heads straight for the pub, pulls up his usual chair. Harry Clearwater grabs a schooner glass and puts it under the tap.
Harry's pretty much the only one making any money in this town, and he knows it's at the hands of other men's struggles. He knows that the men sitting at his bar, their eyes downcast and their faces lined with worry, are spending the money, mostly from government pensions and unemployment benefits, that their wives need to keep their children's bellies full. He keeps telling himself he's not these men's nanny, but it doesn't quite ease his guilt.
He reminds himself of the fact he's not exploiting the fellas as much as he could be. He did get rid of the pokies when the first round of cutbacks happened at the mill. He couldn't bear to watch the men feed the dregs of their paychecks into those flashing, noisy throats cawing their empty promises, couldn't handle another crying wife come in to drag her husband away from the clutches of the devil's machines. So he's done something, right? How can he do more? He's got four kids of his own to look after—he can't very well shut the place down.
Edward nods as Harry slides a schooner of New into his line of vision. He pulls a twenty from his wallet and tosses it on the beer-stained carpet runner that lines the bar. "Keep 'em comin'," he tells the barman.
Harry takes the money and tucks it into the till, promising himself that's all the money he'll accept from Edward Cullen tonight. He'll serve him his money's worth, then one more on the house, then he'll tell the younger man to get on home to his missus and his little girls.
At first, Edward does try to make an effort to make himself useful, now that he's at home so much. He fixes the leaking tap in the laundry. Changes the lightbulbs Bella can't reach. Cleans out the gutters and mows the lawns. He sprays WD-40 on anything that makes the slightest squeak.
He even scrounges up as much scrap timber as he can and cobbles together a cubby house for Alice and Rose. Their smiles and astonishment—"Mummy, look it! Daddy maked a house!"—make him feel about ten feet tall.
But aside from keeping the lawn tidy, he quickly runs out of things to keep him busy. Bella gets exasperated at having him under foot all the time. He tries to help her with the laundry, but after he turns all the whites pink for the second time, she tells him to bugger off.
So he takes to sitting in front of the television, a tinny in hand. He watches Neighbours re-runs and Dr. Phil and fucking Ready, Steady, Cook. He usually lasts until about four o'clock in the arvo before he can't handle it anymore. Then he gets on his old pushy and heads down the pub. "Just for one coldy," he tells Bella.
She knows one means four. Or six. Maybe eight.
"Dinner's at six," she reminds him. Every day, he promises to be home before then.
Sometimes he is. More often he's not.
Alice and Rose start to refuse to eat their greens. And oranges, reds, yellows, and whites. The dinner table becomes a battlefield. It usually ends in tears. Alice's, Rose's. More often than not, Bella's, too.
After she finally gets the girls to sleep, Bella sits at the table with her ancient laptop whirring away and wonders how much longer they can keep going like this. Edward's Newstart payment barely covers the rent, even with Rent Assistance. The Family Tax Benefits that go into her account just cover the grocery bills. She thanks God she never bothered going to the bank to get Edward put on that account. Without that small amount of money he can't piss away every fortnight, they'd be buggered.
She sighs, logs off the computer, and wonders what it will take for things to change.
Edward starts coming home even later. Bella stops waiting up.
He comes crawling into their bed, stinking of stale beer and sweat and secondhand smoke and half the time he's too drunk to even try to start anything with her before he passes out.
When he does touch her, pawing at her breasts, trying to slide his drink-clumsy hands into her underwear, Bella pushes him away and tells him she has a headache, she's not in the mood, she's too tired. Sometimes she pretends to be asleep. Sometimes she whispers insults into the dark and tells him to go sleep on the fucking couch.
But sometimes, she misses him so much that she'll endure his beer breath and his sloppy kisses and his fumbling fingers. She strips off her clothes and he grunts and jerks over her and usually finishes before she's even getting started. She tells herself she doesn't care. She doesn't need an orgasm, she just needs him.
Those nights she falls asleep with his arms wrapped around her and his snores sawing through her chest and she tells herself things will get better.
They have to.
It's a Tuesday morning when Bella hears the squeaky exhale of brakes and the metallic clanging of the garbage truck moving up the street. She wonders if Edward remembered to put the bins out. She reminded him twice yesterday, but the doubt whispering in her ear has her slipping on a pair of tracksuit pants and tiptoeing out of their bedroom.
The living room stinks, more than just the beer-smoke-sweat stench she's started to associate with Edward. She smells vomit, too. Hand over her mouth, trying not to gag, she tiptoes past the snoring mass on the couch and slips out the front door.
It's barely light out. The sky is lavender pale, the trees dark grey silhouettes. Already a warm breeze is raking across the earth from the west. There's a faint hint of smoke coming with it—there must be a bushfire somewhere nearby.
Edward hasn't put the bins out. Bella quickly looks around the street to check which ones need to be out this fortnight. The street is lined with bins with red and yellow lids. Red is for the normal garbage collection; yellow is for the recyclables. She walks down the side of the house, swearing under her breath as rocks and gumnuts dig into the soles of her feet.
Grabbing hold of the recycling bin, she gives it a heave. It comes reluctantly, its wheels catching in every crack and hole as if in protest at being moved.
She shoves it into place at the curb just as the truck gets to the house next door.
Bella can't explain why, but some instinct has her lifting the lid of the bin. Her heart sinks.
The bin is full to the brim with crushed VB cans. Shame we don't live in South Australia, she thinks, but there's no humour behind the thought.
How many cases has he bought this fortnight? How did he pay for them?
Bella leaves her heart out on the street to be carried away with the garbage.
She brings the red bin up, then heads back inside, hand over her stomach, feeling suddenly queasy. Did he pay the rent? The electricity bill? Is she going to bring the kids home from the park one day in the not-so-distant future to find they've been locked out of their home?
She opens up her laptop and waits for it to slowly come to life.
By the time Alice comes stumbling out of her bedroom at half past six, Bella has her tears under control. She smiles as the little girl crawls onto her lap, her auburn curls mashed against her head and her soft cheek creased with the imprint of her pillow. "Dada sick?"
Bella looks down into brown eyes. Alice's eyes are the same colour as her mother's, but the almost-almond shape is a gift from her father's genes.
"Yeah, baby," Bella says. "Daddy's sick."
Bella might have given up a lot to care for her family—her uni degree, her income, her spontaneity—but she's no pushover. She's putting a stop to this, now.
She takes the girls out into the backyard to eat their breakfast, and they play the "who can be the quietest?" game as she gets them dressed and does their hair. She takes them over to Angela's house, telling her cousin, "I'll be back in two hours."
When she pulls back into the driveway, she sits in the car with her head in her hands, praying to a God she's no longer sure is listening.
"Edward." She slams the front door behind her and throws her keys onto the table. "Get up."
She stomps over to the couch and gives him a shake. The smell lingering around his sleeping form is putrid; it almost makes her gag.
He mumbles and groans and it's only when she starts yelling, threatening to tip a bucket of water over his bloody head if he doesn't get his arse into the shower that he finally staggers to his feet.
She watches him stumble towards the bathroom, swaying like a sailor who's been at sea for a year and has forgotten how to walk on the firmness of dry land. His shirt is stained with vomit, and the hems of his jeans are crusted with she doesn't want to know what.
While she waits for him, she cleans the kitchen, washing the plates and cups from the girls' breakfast and wiping down the counters. She throws a load of washing in the machine but doesn't start it—there's not enough water pressure with the shower running, too.
A cloud of steam follows Edward out of the bathroom twenty minutes later. He's shaved and run a comb through his hair. Towel wrapped around his waist, he slumps into the chair opposite her. Bella pushes a mug of black coffee in front of him, and he rasps out a thanks.
She gives him a few minutes to sip the hot coffee before she speaks.
"The credit card is almost maxed out."
He stares into his mug. "I–" He shakes his head. "I– Did I do that?"
"Well, I sure as fuck didn't." Bella squeezes her hands into fists. "Pretty lucky I checked, don't you think? Before I went to buy Alice's birthday presents. It would've been pretty bloody humiliating if I'd gone into the city and had it rejected there."
"I'm s–so sorry, babe." Edward seems to crumple, to fold in on himself, and it makes Bella angrier. She wants to shout and rage. She wants him to fight her, defend himself. But he just sits there, head bowed, his hands dangling uselessly between his knees, and he's just… He's so pathetic that the fight goes out of her.
"I'll have to get a job," she says. "There's almost five grand owing on the credit card. I can't see another way."
"Baby," he says. His voice is as weak as he looks with his bloodshot eyes and the greyish tinge to his skin. "I'll keep looking. I'll find something."
"We might have to move." Bella watches him closely. "If neither of us can find anything, we'll just have to. Maybe there's more work going in the city."
"No." Edward's palm lands on the table with a slap, and Bella is almost relieved to see this evidence that there's still some fight in him. "We can't… We can't move. This is home."
"It's not home." Bella speaks quietly. "Home is where the four of us are together. And if you keep drinking like this, we… The girls can't grow up with you pissing your life away in front of them, Edward."
He tells her over and over that he's sorry. He makes promises. He'll quit drinking. He'll keep looking for work. He'll pull himself together.
For a few weeks, it looks to Bella like he's keeping those promises. He's there at the dinner table every night. He's poring through the newspaper every morning. He reads the girls their bedtime stories and he cooks dinner a few nights a week. And even though he only knows how to use the barbeque and Bella quickly tires of sausages and steak, she figures it's worth it. She'll eat red meat every night for the next decade if it means Edward is around, sober and functioning, taking care of his family.
It's a dreary Friday afternoon when she takes the girls over to Angela's. Bella's called in a favour. The girls will be sleeping over there because she's got plans to show Edward just how much she appreciates him stepping up.
Angela has gossip she needs to pass on, so Bella accepts her offer of a cuppa. She nibbles on an ANZAC bikkie as her cousin prattles on about the fast food chain that's opening in town and how "everyone reckons" the butcher is having an affair with the hairdresser.
"It's not an affair," Bella tells her, "when they're both single. Leave them be."
Bella glances from the clock to the window. The clouds are gathering, darkening. The horizon looks bruised. "I should go, Angie. Get home before it starts coming down." It's just an excuse. She's itching to touch her husband, to wrap herself around him and reconnect with him. She's missed him.
"Be good, girls." Bella kisses them both goodbye.
It starts to rain as she pulls back into the drive at home. She's laughing as she dashes from the car to the front door. Her steps kick up puffs of dust which mix with the rain to splatter mud on her shins.
She finds Edward sitting at the table when she closes the door behind her. He looks up from the tattered old paperback he's reading and grins.
"My pretty little barometer."
Bella finds a bobby pin in her pocket and smooths back the curls gathering at her temples. She pins them off her face.
"So what did you want to do tonight?"
He pulls her into his lap and she catches a whiff of something sweet on his breath. She tells herself it's nothing. But then he kisses her and she can taste it.
It's like a punch to the gut. Bile rises in her throat.
She pushes him away and bursts into tears. "Where are you hiding it?"
He shakes his head. Denies it. Says he hasn't had a drink in weeks. He shoves her off his lap and gets to his feet. He stumbles.
"Why can't you trust me?" he asks.
He leaves her standing there, arms wrapped around her middle, and goes into the bedroom, closes the door.
She stands there for what feels like hours, staring at the closed bedroom door. She wants to go to him, tell him she'll give him another chance. She'll tell him she'll go with him to AA meetings if it'll help. But she can't make her feet move.
She's still standing there when he comes out of the bedroom and grabs his keys. She opens her mouth to ask him where he's going but no sound comes out.
The front door slamming behind him releases her. Hot tears on her cheeks, she goes to the bedroom he's just vacated. It smells of him, in the good way. In the way that makes her want to crawl into their bed and stay there until he comes back. Because he has to come back, right?
She drags her gaze away from the bed and pulls down her suitcase from the wardrobe. She's only used it once, for their honeymoon. They'd gone to Fiji and spent their days on the beach, their nights tangled together.
Bella packs light, just a few outfits for her and for the girls. She's not even sure she believes she's actually doing this. But then she finds the bottles. A bottle of Bundy jammed in each of his work boots. She grabs them and takes them to the bathroom, watches the golden liquid disappear down the drain.
By the time she's gathered up her phone and its charger, her handbag and her keys, the rain has slowed. It's just sprinkling now. Through the living room window, she can see half a pastel-coloured rainbow.
She opens the front door and finds Edward standing there. He's soaking wet.
He looks from her face to the suitcase she's dragging. She thinks he might be crying again but she can't tell with the water that's dripping from his hair.
He puts a hand on her shoulder. His touch is gentle, and she wants to sink into him. For a moment, she thinks he's going to stop her. To beg her to stay. For a moment, she thinks she would.
But he leans in and kisses her cheek. "I'll get better," he says. "I promise."
He steps back. Watches her put the suitcase into the car. She sits in the driver's seat for a minute, staring at him while he stares at her. He lifts a hand in a wave and she puts the car in reverse.
She believes him. She has to.