‘So, what do you think?’
Sink, taps, bench, cupboards. All shiny and new. Rick surveys the kitchen. Yes, it has everything he would expect to find. He’s not sure what Monique wants him to say.
‘It’s, uh, very nice.’
‘The benchtop is Italian granite, the appliances German,’ she says. ‘It cost just over fifty grand.’
‘Jeez Monique, where’d you get that sort of money?’ She wouldn’t make that much as a receptionist.
‘Money’s no worry. Dave earns heaps. And Dad’s paying for the wedding.’
His little sister’s wedding. The reason he’s back in Wellington. He’s been away five years and all of a sudden she’s in serious housewife mode – new home, new car and huge rock on her finger. The Monique he left behind lived in a grotty flat and went out to see grungy bands at weekends.
The wedding is a huge extravagance too. It’s the sort of money they could really use in Uruzgan province, where he’s been working for the past two years. How many people could get artificial limbs fitted for the amount of money that’s going on Monique and Dave’s wedding? He knows he shouldn’t make comparisons like this – it’ll just make him angry – but it all seems pointless. Why does Monique need this ostentatious kitchen?
‘You must have some good stories to tell,’ Monique says. ‘From Afghanistan.’
‘Yeah, one or two,’ Rick says.
‘Did you see any terrorists?’ she laughs. ‘How about the Taliban?’
‘It’s not like that. I’m organising physical therapy and rehab—’
‘I’ve heard you can make a lot of money working for private security companies,’ Monique says. ‘Can you handle a weapon?’
Rick forces a laugh. ‘That’s not my style.’
Monique knocks on a cupboard door. ‘Gannet Grey.’
‘The colour. You wouldn’t believe how long it took us to decide.’
She opens one side of a huge and well-stocked stainless steel refrigerator, takes out a bottle of beer and hands it to Rick. He wonders if all the food is just for her and Dave.
Rick wanders out the French doors into the back garden and takes a long drink. It’s a cloudless autumn day and the sun’s weak rays hit the back of his tanned neck.
Then he thinks of her.
She was just nineteen when he met her. She had lost her right leg when the cart she was travelling in was hit by a van. She was supposed to get married to a young man from her village, but he didn’t want her with only one leg.
Although it was a fairly standard prosthetic fitting, easily handled by the Afghani staff, Rick found excuses to check up on Mehri again and again. She would gaze at him from under her hijab with kohl-rimmed eyes of the clearest green, like two bright emeralds. He remembers the day he found her weeping in her room. He wanted to comfort her, but knew it would be improper to get involved.
Then he found out the news. Another man from her village wanted to marry her. He was older than Mehri’s father and already had two wives, although one had died. Mehri tried to be happy, but her washed-out eyes showed otherwise.
Over and over Rick asked the Afghani staff: ‘Is he a good man?’ and over and over they would say: ‘Yes, he is good man. He is taking Mehri with her false leg.’ It wasn’t that Rick thought he could be with her himself, but he wanted to know that her husband was more than just a man willing to take on a disabled wife.
On the day Mehri’s parents arrived to take her home, she looked at Rick and her eyes welled up. He threw aside custom and hugged her close, knowing her parents and the staff would be shocked. Mehri did not resist, but neither did she return the embrace. He watched her limp away to the bus station to catch the long ride home. He never heard about her again.
He finishes his beer and takes a deep breath. Monique has promised to tell him about the bathrooms.
Monique scrapes the last of the lemon meringue pie onto her spoon and licks it off. She doesn’t need the calories, but the wedding is only two days away so it shouldn’t make any difference at this stage. She looks at her father Gerry over the table.
‘Dad, can I have a private word?’ Monique says.
‘Course. I was just about to say the same thing. Let’s go into my study.’
They go into the small room, dominated by a large desk and a huge flat-screen TV on the wall. Gerry closes the door behind them.
‘So, what’s up, Micky?’ he asks, using the childhood nickname she hasn’t heard for years.
Monique sits on his office chair and swivels it from left to right, examining her long pink nails on one hand.
‘Dad, it’s just that, uh, I’ve been made redundant,’ she says. ‘I haven’t told anyone yet, not even Dave, because I wanted to check that everything will be OK. Money-wise, I mean.’
Gerry sighs and shakes his head. ‘Monique, when I gave you the house deposit you swore that you and Dave could afford the mortgage payments.’
‘We can, we can.’ Monique knows she sounds whiny. ‘It’s just that Dave’s business is still quite new, so the money’s a bit up and down at the moment.’
‘So, you’ll get another job?’
‘I’ve got so much to do around the house. Plus,’ – she lowers her eyes – ‘we’ve been thinking about starting a family.’
Gerry sits back and stares at the ceiling. Finally, he laughs and says: ‘Guess what I wanted to talk about tonight?’
‘Actually,’ Gerry says. ‘I wanted to ask if there were any economies you could make with your wedding.’
Monique sits upright. ‘You’re kidding, right? There’s only two days to go. We can’t start changing things now.’
‘Anything, big or small, will help.’
‘But you were the one who said money no object and just do whatever you want, honey, I’ll pay.’ She hasn’t used this sarcastic, mocking tone for a while.
Gerry stares down at his hands. A vein in his forehead pumps visibly.
‘Things are a bit tight right now, that’s all,’ he says. ‘It’s not my fault, of course, but some investors want their money back and the timing’s all wrong. Any spending cuts would be good. Just until I get back on my feet.’
‘You’re not in some sort of trouble, are you Dad?’
‘No, no. Nothing like that. It’s just timing. Cashflow. I know it’s probably too late for the wedding, but as for the mortgage, it would be really good if you could find another job. I might not be able to help out for a while.’
‘I thought I could rely on you!’ Monique’s voice is hovering on the edge of tears. Gerry stands behind her and puts his hands on her shoulders.
‘You can, honey, you can. It’s just a bit of a speed bump.’
All Monique can think about is her amazing wedding and her beautiful house. It’s no wonder she has expensive taste. She was brought up to be Daddy’s little princess, and everyone knows that princesses get the best in life. Gerry has always provided for her: the best private school, a new Toyota SUV when she was sixteen, a year-long jaunt around Europe when she finished school. Even when she lived in her shabby flat in Kilbirnie, it was really just a way of giving her father the finger – a ‘look at me, I don’t need your money’ statement, which only lasted a couple of years.
She thinks of Rick doing his aid work in Afghanistan. He truly doesn’t want or need the family money. How does he do it?
Monique stands up suddenly, but doesn’t turn to face her father. ‘Dad, you’re a disappointment,’ she says. ‘A huge disappointment.’ And she walks out without looking back.
Gerry stands outside his office block and checks his watch. He’s meeting a client and taking him to a local cafe. He’d told him his office was being redecorated – painters and paint fumes everywhere and nowhere private to talk.
‘Gerry.’ A man in his mid-thirties greets him.
‘Mark, how are you!’ Gerry shakes his hand vigorously. ‘Long time no see. Hope all’s well.’
In the cafe, Gerry chooses a corner booth, orders the coffees and opens his laptop. He impressed himself this morning with the paperwork he knocked together. He’s hoping Mark won’t look too closely.
Gerry quickly flicks from document to document, talking foreign exchange exposure, hedging services and credit risk. He watches his client attentively. He suspects Mark won’t know enough to ask serious questions, but won’t want to expose his ignorance by asking simple ones. He’s right. The meeting passes without a hitch.
Mark is the picture of a successful professional – a high-earning gynaecologist, dressed in a casual but expensive sports jacket and plaid shirt and wearing tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses. He owns an upmarket waterfront apartment and drives an Audi. How long will it be, Gerry thinks, before Mark wants to get his hands on his investment? There’s no sign of it yet, but other clients are getting twitchy.
Surely, Gerry thinks, it won’t be long before more money flows in and he can sort out the trouble he seems to have found himself in. After all, he’s done it before. He’s already had to move out of his smart office. His new office is no more than a glorified broom cupboard, but it’s in the same building, so at least his name is in the foyer. It’s just not fair. He’s spent years – decades, actually – working in finance. Trying to hold everything together. His clients should be thanking him for his hard work. Their insistence on getting their money will cause everything to fail, but he’ll get the blame.
They chat as they stroll back along the waterfront. It’s one of those sunny autumn days when people make the most of the good weather. The joggers are out, dodging the mothers with their industrial-sized baby buggies. The tops of the waves sparkle and everything seems right with the world. Gerry doesn’t want to think about clients or weddings or mortgages or money of any kind.
Back at the office block, Gerry sees two men in dark suits. As he shakes Mark’s hand again and bids him goodbye, one of the men approaches him.
‘I’m Jim Bennett from the Serious Fraud Office. We’d like a word.’
The other man looks at Gerry’s laptop. ‘I’m afraid I’ll have to take that,’ he says and holds out a hand. Gerry hesitates for a moment, then gives it to him.
It’s Monique’s wedding tomorrow and she wants everything to be perfect. Briefly, Gerry considers asking if this can all wait until next week. But he knows there’s no chance. He’s been waiting for this to happen. He knows that when he gets to his office, these men will take everything. They might even want to search his house.
He’ll have to go home and tell his wife. And his children. And then everyone will find out.
Mark fiddles with his car radio. He thought he heard something on the news and now he’s trying to catch it again. He was only half listening, but he’s sure the words ‘Chisnall’, ‘arrested’ and ‘Ponzi scheme’ came up. He feels uneasy. The meeting with Gerry yesterday had gone well, but those two men at his office block looked sinister. He senses something’s wrong, but he’s not sure what.
And now this dinner with Phil and Mandy. He’d thought it was going to be casual, but then found out that Mandy wants him there because she has invited a single woman friend. Is that what they think of him? Just some guy to make up the numbers? But it’s not as though he can bring Sylvie. They can’t be seen together in public. That’s the downside of having an affair with the wife of one of Wellington’s most high-profile surgeons. The secrecy was exciting at first, but now it frustrates him.
At Phil and Mandy’s apartment he meets Lisa. She’s a couple of years younger than him, dark-haired, attractive. Nice eyes. Seems like a sweet person. He’s not interested, of course, but more than once he’s wondered if he should go out with another woman to make Sylvie jealous. The problem is, he doesn’t want any other woman. He wants Sylvie.
Phil introduces him: ‘This is Mark. He’s a gynaecologist.’ Mark knows the jokes will come next. ‘Have you washed your hands, mate? We know where they’ve been.’ Mark smiles wanly. He’s heard it all before. He only puts up with Phil’s gags because he’s his oldest friend from primary school.
‘Why do women like old gynaecologists?’ Phil asks the assembled guests, then holds up a finger and shakes it like he’s got Parkinson’s. A couple of the men guffaw as though it’s the funniest joke they’ve ever heard. A couple of the women titter. Two look po-faced.
‘That’s enough of that,’ Mandy says, coming into the living room with dips. ‘Has everyone met Lisa? Doesn’t she look fab? She lost heaps of weight in Aussie.’
Mark looks at Lisa. Lisa looks at the floor.
Inevitably, they are seated next to each other at dinner. Lisa spends a lot of time talking to the woman on her other side. Mark senses she feels just as uncomfortable as he does. He decides to break the ice.
‘So, why were you in Australia?’ he asks.
‘I went to work in an outback community with Aboriginal children. I’m a teacher,’ she says.
‘Bloody hell. That was noble of you,’ Mark says, but regrets it immediately. He doesn’t want Lisa to think he’s just another rich tosser. But maybe that’s exactly what he is.
‘It was pretty tough,’ she continues. ‘The odds are stacked against them in such a big way.’
‘I was offered some volunteer jobs in Third World countries,’ Mark says, but then realises how shallow that sounds. ‘A friend of mine did a work placement in Tonga and delivered lots of babies. A couple of them were named after him. Just a shame his name’s Sebastian.’ He chuckles.
‘Ah, that’s really nice. Special.’ Lisa smiles at him. Mark thinks it is the most genuine smile he has seen in a long time.
‘Hey, you two. How you getting on?’ Mandy yells from the head of the table.
‘Mandy tells me Lisa hasn’t had a boyfriend for nearly three years,’ Phil says. ‘She’ll be up for it.’
‘Oh Phil, stop that right now.’ Mandy giggles and throws a bread roll at her husband.
‘Can I apologise for my friend?’ Mark whispers to Lisa. He’s serious.
‘Only if I can apologise for mine,’ she says. ‘Sorry, but as soon as it’s polite, I’m going to head home.’
Mark nods. Fair enough, he thinks, fair enough.
But he misses her after she leaves and Phil launches into more of his jokes.
It’s late morning and Lisa is sitting at the airport departure lounge. She thinks again about last night. Unbelievable. Not Mandy and Phil’s behaviour, although that was bad enough. She knows what they’re like when they’ve had a few drinks. But that guy, Mark. He was her gynaecologist when she was in her late twenties and he clearly didn’t have a clue who she was now. OK, she looked a bit different back then, was a few dress sizes bigger. But really, had she changed that much?
She knows she looks good now. Somehow, in her mid-thirties, she’s grown into her looks. She wears close-fitting dresses and sees the admiring glances. But where are all the available men?
She can still clearly remember the painful words that Mark – Dr Gillespie – had said to her that rainy day.
‘If you want to have children, you need to start trying sooner rather than later.’
Lisa had always assumed she would be a mother one day, but at that point in her life she didn’t even have a boyfriend. And all of a sudden, last night, there was the man who had delivered the news that had changed her life, looking as if he had never seen her before.
But Mark had turned out to be OK after all. Lisa had felt odd going to the dinner party, knowing she was the conspicuous single female. She had worried it would be like that scene in Bridget Jones’s Diary.
She looks up at the departures board. There’s fog hanging over the airport and her flight’s been delayed. Her mother in Auckland is having surgery tomorrow and she said she’d go up for a few days to help out.
‘Do you have a pen I could borrow?’ the man next to her asks.
‘Sure.’ She reaches into her bag and blindly swats around, finding nothing. ‘Sorry, I guess not.’ She shrugs and turns to look at him. He stares at her squarely in the face. She can see he looks surprised.
‘Are you OK?’ she asks after a few seconds.
‘Yes, fine,’ he says slowly. ‘It’s just that… you look so much like a woman I know.’
Lisa wonders if it’s a pickup line.
‘Actually, it’s just your eyes. They’re an incredible green.’ He takes a deep breath. ‘Her name’s Mehri, she’s from Afghanistan. She was a patient at a hospital in Uruzgan where I work. I’m Rick, by the way.’
‘Lisa.’ She looks at him. He’s a couple of years older than her, she thinks, and his weather-beaten face has a rugged look she finds very appealing.
‘You work in Afghanistan?’
‘Yeah, I run a rehab centre. Organise prosthetic limbs and physiotherapy, that sort of thing.’
‘That’s great. What’s it like?’ she asks. ‘I mean, what’s it really like?’
And he tells her. He has so much to tell and, with their flight delayed, plenty of time to talk about the hardships, the heartbreak, the glimmers of hope and happiness. He tells her about Mehri, about his hope that her husband is not just a man who is willing to marry a disabled woman but a man who will treat her with kindness and respect.
Then Lisa tells him about working in a small town in the outback, where Aboriginal teenagers wander around clutching tubes of glue under their noses and the adults disappear for days when there’s money for grog. He’s the first person she’s been truly honest with, and she tells him how she went there full of idealism and enthusiasm, but soon got scared because of her lack of knowledge and understanding.
‘I was interfering in people’s lives,’ Lisa says. ‘I had some pretty unrealistic ideas about what I could achieve. I had to come back before I stuffed up. I’m teaching at a local primary school now.’
Rick tells her he is in Wellington because his sister was supposed to get married yesterday, but the wedding was cancelled after their father was arrested for ripping off investors.
‘Millions of dollars have gone missing and everything’s a big mess,’ Rick says. ‘I’m running away from it all, thank God.’
Lisa looks at Rick and wishes she wasn’t the dutiful daughter visiting her mother when he is heading back to the Middle East. She wishes she had met him a couple of years ago when they could have worked together and helped people. But what can she do about it when they are going in such different directions?
Lisa wonders if she will ever again encounter someone like Rick. She knows this is ridiculous, but what if he’s sitting beside her feeling the same way but not wanting to say anything? This might be the one chance she gets in her whole lifetime, if she’s brave enough to take it. But she thinks she probably used up all her bravery when she went to Australia.
After two hours, the fog lifts and planes start departing. Finally, their flights are called. Lisa stands up.
‘Goodbye, Rick. All the best in Afghanistan. It was great meeting you.’
‘You too, Lisa. It’s been a privilege.’
She walks to the gate and shows her ticket to the airline crew. They wave her through and she starts to step forward, but then drops back and asks to borrow a pen. She scrawls her email address on the back of an envelope from her pocket, dashes back to Rick and hands it to him.
‘Keep in touch, OK?’
He smiles and nods.
And she walks out to catch her plane without looking back.
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