The conversation at the Watson Christmas Day table was exactly as expected. The topics, perennial: food, shopping, work promotions, the next meal or party of the season. In all, bearable subjects to endure, but to which Jane felt she had no input. Amidst the milieu of familial guests at the table, Jane knew she had nothing to add. To her family she was at least one of two things: a child or an outsider.
Another perennial topic was Jane’s love life.
‘Tell me Janie’, Jane’s great aunt Edith huskily whispered to her, yet audible to all at the lunch table, ‘do you have someone special you’re seeing?’
With her aunt leaning in so close, waiting for the answer like every other eaves dropper at the table, Janie felt her panic set in. But, when her older sister Lucy sniggered at the now lengthening pause between question and answer, she was quickly overcome by indignation and anger. What a bunch of shits, she thought, sitting around waiting for their annual instalment of ‘Janie’s love life’. Alright, she thought, you’re all gonna get it.
‘Yes, I do.’
‘And… Well go on, what’s his name?’
Edie’s eyebrows moved 2 inches above the rims of her glasses, indicating her surprise and excitement at Janie’s news. Others at the table stopped chewing and leaned a little closer.
‘Edie, Mr Tibbles is Janie’s new cat. She’s talking about a cat, not a guy Edie’, Lucy interjected, speaking loudly so that Edie’s hearing aid would pick up the correction. Realising that a cat and not a man was involved, Edie’s eyebrows slouched into a frown.
‘Oh… well Jane, you know, you can’t marry a cat can you?’ Edie said shaking her head and peering over the top of her glasses, projecting all the wrinkles, wisdom and chiding her years had to offer.
‘No, Aunt Edie, I can’t. All the same, I don’t think Mr Tibbles believes in marriage, so we’re perfect for each other.’
Jane shot back the remark to shut everyone up. Edie was forced to keep her comment about ‘time getting on’ to herself. And whilst her mother Margaret didn’t comment either, she did roll her eyes, glare and click her tongue. It was the kind of chastising only mothers can deliver as effectively and non-verbally as they do. Janie felt rightly corrected for toying with Edie, and at the same time she felt an almost violent need to defend herself against the silent judgements being cast around the table.
Her mother’s judgement was perhaps the hardest to bear. There was something more there in Margaret’s eye roll, glare and tongue clicking. It was something like a kind of hopeless disappointment. It was as if all was lost and there was no possible redemption for Jane. Savvy, albeit childish retorts, volleyed by Janie solidified her mother’s lost hope in any idea that her daughter would ever grow up. If Jane was honest with herself, she would admit that being the perennial child had its perks.
Jane was a 30-something with no children, no boyfriend, no career to speak of, and no assets (unless her rare collection of Australian garage rock vynl counted toward anything). Being the alien had a certain benefit though. Jane felt she didn’t need to take full responsibility for herself, or anybody else for that matter. The occasional baby might be shoved her way, but she never felt an overpowering urge to procreate. One look at her sister Lucy, with her three children and broken wreck of a husband Damien, was enough to warn her of the demons that lurked in the romantic aspirations of marriage, house and kids.
She stared at Lucy now, with affection, sympathy and a good dose of cynicism. Lucy may have made out that her life was peachy and complete, that it was everything she had wanted and had chosen. Jane knew that was a lie. It was evident in the way Lucy and Damien regarded each other. The scowls and words they exchanged, even now over the table.
‘Dame!’ Lucy shot his name at him as if calling him to attention.
‘Yeah’ he responded laconically, pausing beforehand that Lucy might know of his unwillingness to be called to heel. Lucy stared at Damien, defiant of his public display of obstinance. Jane was glad that the table’s focus had now been adjusted: all attention was on the couple.
‘Your child Damien, the one sitting next to you, he’s rubbing gravy into the table.’
‘Shit! Stephen! What are you doing mate? Bloody hell!’
Lucy sat adjacent unmoved, with a silent and almost smirking face, whilst Damien was consumed by his own parental embarrassment and panic. Margaret meanwhile moved with grace, and adept domestic skill to the aid of father and 4 year old.
‘God, I’m so sorry Margaret!’
‘No matter Dame, it’s just a little mess… There. All fixed. Keep it on the plate now Stephen my sweet.’
Margaret spoke gently, smoothing anxiety and correcting ills as only a matron can. She looked at Lucy as she did, plainly and without judgement, but so as to include her in the moment between father and son. There was something else there between Margaret and Lucy. It was something like understanding. Jane hated them for that. How was it that her mother understood Lucy’s childishness, but openly pointed out Jane’s?
‘Something in my teeth Janie?’ Jane was unaware of how intently she had been staring at Lucy the whole time. Lucy queried with her signature sarcasm, elbowing Bob her father, ‘Jane’s gone again dad.’
As immediately as it had shifted, the focus of the table was back on Jane. Jane meanwhile deferred her attention from Lucy to her lunch plate, busying herself with her mother’s attempt at a vegetarian meal.
‘Leave her Lucy, it’s Christmas after all.’
Bob’s correction was welcomed by Jane. Good on you dad: knew I could rely on you, Jane thought. That was, before he continued:
‘and you know how she dreams, we don’t all have to be switched on dear.’
‘You’re right dad. He’s right isn’t he Jane? You’re a dreamer, aren’t you?’ Lucy’s smile now only thinly veiled her contempt for a childhood spent as her younger sister’s keeper.
Jane breathed a heavy sigh into her now mushed up nut loaf. She was a dreamer. The guilt of having wittingly left her sister to pick up after her on so many occasions ate away at her, even now. Her silence was as good as a ‘yes’ to Lucy’s question. In fact Lucy hadn’t even waited for a response, she was already eagerly engaged in a conversation with uncle Kevin.
Looking up from her plate Jane sought out a face, that looked something like pity, at least. Her uncle Kevin had taken breath from the conversation with Lucy. He smiled at Jane with a kind of sympathy that warmed and eroded her at the same time. Why couldn’t she be more like Kevin: a man; an atheist; a respected barrister; a divorcee. She wanted to to wear the same social Teflon he seemed clad in. He wasn’t entirely unscathed by his family, but at least no one treated him like a child.
With the meal finished Margaret sent all and sundry into the garden to cure their festive indulgences with a nap or game of pétanque. Lucy and Jane were meanwhile assigned the task of clean up. With the dishwasher filled to capacity, Jane found Lucy labouring over a sink of greasy pans, knives and casserole dishes. Wrapped up in an apron, she stooped over the steamy water, plying a scrubbing brush to a stubborn and brown lump of nut loaf. Without looking at Jane, Lucy pointed at a spare apron hanging nearby:
‘That’s for you if you want. I’ll do the meat if you do the veg.’
Jane was strangely touched by Lucy’s consideration: that beyond not wanting to eat meat, Jane might not want to touch it either. Jane donned the apron, and picked up a clean tea towel. The tension between the two sisters was softened now by the involuntary and annual task their mother thrust upon them. Jane came close to Lucy, inspecting the dish rack for the driest item.
‘I’m sorry about lunch Janie. What I said, that was uncalled for.’ Lucy had stopped scrubbing, but still hadn’t turned her eyes to Jane.
‘That’s ok… I am a dreamer!’
‘No, not that.’ Lucy seemed a little annoyed that her sister was off the mark. Jane on the other hand was momentarily deflated, her self deprecation having been misapplied.
‘I mean what I said to Damien over the table, the way I said it, the way I embarrassed him. That was completely out of line.’
‘Oh God, I’m not upset about that Luce, why say sorry to me?’ Jane almost snorted to lift the mood and her embarrassment at thinking Lucy would ever apologise to her. At this point Lucy braced herself against the stainless steel mouth of the sink, squeezing her eyes shut, grimacing at the torrent of grief shut up inside her.
‘Oh Luce.’ Janie put aside her towel and put her arm around her sister. Lucy almost immediately melted into Janie, putting all her weight into her younger sister’s shoulders, her arms gripping Jane’s slight frame as if she were a life buoy. Then came a moan, which frightened Jane. A long and primitive moan.
‘Oh Luce, what’s up, what’s wrong. Oh shhhhhhhh, oh honey…’ Jane attempted to comfort Lucy, leading her to a nearby chair and settling her there, all the time with Lucy’s arms draped heavily around her shoulders.
‘Janie, it’s so shit, it’s so fucking hard to keep it all together. Bloody hell it’s hard!’
‘I know. Well I don’t know, but I can see.’
‘We used to be so into each other. We used to desire each other and now we can’t stand the sight of each other. We don’t laugh like we used to, don’t talk. God, we don’t even fuck anymore.’
Another moan was let out, as Lucy buried her face into Jane’s now snot and tear drenched shirt. Lucy stayed there for a little longer, before composing herself and sitting up straight. Breathing a little more normally now, having wiped the tears away, and blown her nose, Lucy looked at Jane for the first time since the lunch table.
‘I’m sorry for having a go at you before, you just seem so free of all of this crap. You seem so uncomplicated. Sometimes I wish I was you.’
And there it was, the last admission Jane ever hoped to hear from her sister: that Jane’s life was worth desiring. Jane couldn’t really say anything, it wasn’t like she desired Lucy’s life.
‘It ‘s not all that bad is it. I mean you and Dame love each other… don’t you?’
Lucy just collapsed back into Jane, and howled ‘I don’t know!’ Jane was a little frightened by this second admission and the force with which Lucy now gripped at her. Jane knew enough about relationships to really feel for Lucy’s doubts, but with kids too, that must be the shittest feeling.
Jane put her arms around her crumbled sister, rocking, patting and shhhh’ing her. ‘It’s gonna be okay, it’s gonna be alright.’ What else was there to say.