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We bumped into an old girlfriend recently, who I haven’t seen since high school. When I introduced Sigrid as my partner there was a flicker of hesitation as Julie digested the information and then she smiled and wanted to know when I crossed over and how it is that two women managed to produce two children? I gave her the short version but later that day as I sat in front of the fire I decided to pen the long version and crossing over seems to be the phrase for the day.
Crossing over was how my sister, Cathy tried to deal with her approaching death in those last few months before she slipped quietly into a coma. The statement defined Cathy’s life and beliefs to me and it was also a way of reaching out even as the cancer ate her alive, to reassure me that death was not the end. It was a marked difference to our mother’s rigid Protestant dogma that insisted she accept Jesus as her personal saviour or burn forever in the fires of hell.
There are three major branches of Christianity in Australia, the Anglican and Catholic churches are European imports, both of which are diametrically opposed to each other, but mum belonged to the much later American import, a variety of Baptist, Pentecostal and Charismatic branches and like the above two, none of them like the presence of the other.
With all that in mind however, Christianity in all its forms is a minority religion compared to agnosticism, as has been so aptly put by a famous Australian comic, we’re a nation of half-arsed agnostics. Cathy and I had been at odds with mum for years. Cathy was the first to rebel when she experimented with alcohol, dope and sex, I followed soon after, albeit in a more measured and disciplined fashion.
Cathy died on Sunday the 24th of January, 1998, five days later she was laid to rest at Lilydale cemetery under a blazing sun. I stood at one side of the graveside with my friends and my manager from work, my mother was on the other side with her friends, her face a stony mask of bitterness and hate.
The last promise Cathy extracted from me before she slipped into a coma was, “keep her away from me, please.” Her “I’ll watch over you,” was whispered a few minutes later.
It was a promise I kept but it would cost me, I might have been empowered to take charge of the funeral service but keeping mum at bay had driven a permanent wedge between us. Her departure from the graveside without the customary hug or comforting words made my boss, Melanie a little uneasy.
“Not even a word?” Melanie’s eyes widened.
“Ignore her,” I murmured, “it’s emotional blackmail, she’s putting on a performance for the peanut gallery.”
At least Melanie and her friends were there to comfort me and with a final look at the coffin, we went back to the cars.
“Take another week off,” Melanie slipped an arm around my shoulder, “I’m the manager, I’ll authorise it.”
“I can manage, besides, you’ve got another off on sick leave.”
“I can manage,” Melanie reassured me, “it’s on my badge, manager. I’ve got a new member of staff who started yesterday, so we’re back to full strength.”
“What’s she like?”
“Very bright, energetic, sophisticated, speaks three other languages besides English and plays for the other team.”
“The other team,” I bowed my head, “oh, okay.”
“Sigrid is really nice, she’s my neighbour. I arranged her transfer the other week while you were at the hospital,” she came to a halt by the car.
“You know I say this to all my staff but in your case,” she squeezed my arm, “I’m putting extra emphasis on the words, I’m here for you,” she put her arms around me, “twenty four hours a day although at two in the morning it’ll take me a while to wake up.”
I felt the strength in her arms and let go of my inhibitions. Melanie was the manager at the Boronia branch of the Westpac bank. At thirty five she was also one of the youngest female managers, part of a larger modernisation initiative. She could be tough and fearless when the situation called for it but she was generous to a fault and loyal to her staff.
“Thanks,” I released her.
“No problem,” Melanie took a card from her purse and scribbled a number on the back, “the door swings both ways, we all need a little girl time,” she handed the card over, “I’ll give you a call on Friday to see how you are,” she kissed my cheek.
Considering Melanie’s model-like looks, I considered that a compliment. I was twenty nine, single and although I was attractive, I didn’t consider myself model material. When Melanie once joked that she was going to put me forward as a potential staff model for a new uniform launch I told her that my resignation would be on her desk the next morning.
She’d brought two cards to the funeral that day. The first was a general one from the staff but the second one was more personal, ivory-coloured and with a touching poem inside. The message however was arguably more powerful.
My Dearest Louise,
My heart breaks when canlı bahis I think of you and your loss. When words fail think of my arms around you and know I am always there whenever you need me. Love, Melanie.
I put that card on the mantelpiece for a whole week and set to packing Cathy’s personal belongings into cardboard boxes and stacked them in the bedroom she’d used for the last few months of her illness. Now and then I’d pause by the card to read it again because the message was so poignant and then I’d have to sit on the couch or lie on my bed and let the sadness seep out of me. Melanie could never have known that Cathy’s most adorable trait was her habit of snuggling up to me in bed and putting her arms around me. It felt as if she’d reached out from beyond the grave through Melanie.
Nonetheless, by Friday I’d started on the road to recovery, after a fashion and that afternoon I got a visit from Melanie and Sigrid. It had to be Sigrid because I didn’t recognise the blonde woman in the passenger seat. My house on the corner of Landale Avenue and Springfield Avenue was just opposite the Croydon Swimming pool and the place was full. How that many people could fit into three pools without injury was amazing. Sigrid was staring at the people sprawled about on towels or emerging from the water.
“That’s Sigrid, I’m dropping her off at Lacey Street to pick her car up from her brother in law,” Melanie turned and smiled at me, “how are you?”
“A little better,” I confessed, “still feel numb but I’ve got to move on.”
“If you want more time off.”
“I don’t, all I’ve been doing here is housework, wandering around the house crying, comfort eating, comfort drinking and feeling shithouse. At this rate I’ll be bigger than Mary.”
“Okay,” Melanie’s eyes softened, “glad to hear it. I could sure use a bit of your sense and sensibility at work, Mary found out from a friend at the Box Hill branch about Sigrid’s sexual orientation and now everyone knows. I read the riot act when Sigrid was at lunch the other day and it kind of settled down but Jane is itching to show her claws.”
“Jane is all mouth,” I frowned, “Mary had no right opening hers either, if she kept it closed more often she might lose some of that weight. How are the others treating her?”
“Pretty much sitting on the fence, they won’t cross me but Jane is stirring the pot,” she slipped a hand beneath the collar of her white blouse, “Sigrid’s a hard worker, brilliant in fact, she goes out of her way to help but if I can’t contain the situation I’m going to have to call human resources.”
“And you want me to step in and help out.”
“Well you don’t have to protect her, I know she can handle herself but if someone with your time at the branch gives her the stamp of approval it’ll corral the others from Jane and Mary.”
“I’ll do it,” I folded my arms, “it’s what Cathy would have wanted. She wasn’t a lesbian but she had gay friends, she could make friends with a bunch of terrorists. When she went to Israel I warned her not to make friends because she’d wind up bringing peace to the Middle East.”
“I miss her, not as much as you but I wish I’d been able to spend more time with her,” she turned to look at Sigrid, “do you want to meet her now?”
“Sure,” I followed her to the car.
Sigrid was still looking at the pool but as we drew nearer she turned to look at me and I felt a lump in my throat. She looked nothing like Cathy but she had that same bemused look Cathy put on whenever she was looking at something new. She was wearing the standard Westpac uniform, dark blue skirt and white blouse, although it was only buttoned to her cleavage and she’d taken off the silk kerchief we all wore. As I recall it was a blistering hot day. Her thick blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail and it almost reached the small of her back. Her sculptured face was clear of blemishes and I remember thinking at the time that she looked Scandinavian.
“This is Louise Barnes, my Jill of all trades and this is Sigrid Fønsmark.”
“G’day,” she grinned, exposing pearly white teeth, “Melanie’s told me a lot about you.”
“All good of course,” Melanie chuckled.
“Of course,” she replied, “you’re so lucky to have a pool right across the road.”
I glanced at it briefly.
“Well if absence makes the heart grow fonder, familiarity breeds contempt. I do pop over now and then if it’s quiet but most of the time I prefer to sit in front of the air conditioner with plenty of ice in my glass.”
“Well on that note,” Melanie nudged me, “I’d better drop Sigrid off at Lacey Street.”
“Yeah and now I’m out of the house I might drive up to Coles and do my food shopping.”
“You want a lift?”
“No, it’s all right,” I replied, “maybe the walk will clear my head.”
“I could take you if you want,” Sigrid spoke up, “I have to grab some meat, I just have to jump in my car and go, I’ll drop you off afterwards as well.”
I hesitated for a split second and recalled one of Cathy’s sayings. bahis siteleri
Most people are good, you just have to give them a chance to be good.
Sigrid wasn’t bad and this would be a chance to get to know her better.
“Okay, just let me grab my bag.”
Sigrid’s black 1991 Toyota Celica was parked out the front of the garage where her brother in law, Mark worked. He was a genial man about my age and I commented on his smouldering good looks as I directed Sigrid to the Arndale shopping centre.
“He’s a sweetie, Caroline is so lucky to have him. He does all the work on my car, most of the time he does back yarders for me but he had to do a front end alignment this time and it’s easier at work so he told me.”
“Has he got a brother?”
“Two brothers,” she slowed and turned into the carpark, “David lives in London and Roger lives in Elwood but you’d have to hold out for David because Roger lives with his boyfriend.”
“Well that rules that one out.” I brushed a lock of hair from my forehead, “although they say gay guys make good friends.”
“I’ve only met him once at the wedding but he seems nice enough, I’ve got a few gay male friends and you can have some great conversations with them, but if David ever comes back from London I’ll let you know although I found him a little bit wooden.”
“Are you with anyone?”
“No, I was in a relationship with a woman when I was at the Box Hill branch and I was spending more time there than at home, but when she suggested moving into my house I decided it was time to step back from the brink,” she turned the engine off and looked up into the mirror.
“You haven’t screamed yet.”
“No,” I shifted in the seat, “my sister had a few gay friends, I guess I just got acclimatised to gay people early on, it’s not my thing though but to each their own.”
“Good attitude,” she took out her makeup bag, “I um heard about her passing, I’m sorry I didn’t sign the card, I nearly did but I thought it might look strange reading a message from some woman you’d never met.”
“I understand and thanks.”
“I’ve lost a few great friends over the years and it always hurts. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a sister, I’ve got three sisters and I love them to bits.”
“I’m on my own now,” I swallowed, “mum and I haven’t really talked in years, Cathy wanted nothing to do with her even when she was dying and now she’s gone it’s like I’ve driven a wedge between us that’ll never budge. I never knew my dad, our mum never even mentioned his name so there’s no chance of even tracking him down.”
I looked over to find Sigrid dabbing at her eyes.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m sorry,” her head hit the headrest, “here’s me babbling on like a bimbo and you just come out with that. You’re really going through it.”
“It’s okay, really,” I nudged her hand, “the last three months have been so intense for obvious reasons and all this week I’ve been stuck in my own head going out of my mind, so hearing you babble on is actually a bloody relief.”
“You think?” Sigrid looked at me and smiled, “well I can talk seriously, in three other languages so any time you want to unload just let it out. My shoulders are waterproof.”
“What other languages do you speak?”
“I was born in Denmark, but mum is Swedish, so I speak Danish, Swedish and German, I can get by in Dutch as well but I’m not fluent.”
“It makes me sound like the bimbo now.”
“You’re not,” Sigrid started touching up her makeup.
“So, what kind of women do you like?”
“The ladylike kind,” she puckered her lips, “in the gay scene we’re called lipstick lesbians by the butch types. They hang shit on us and we hang it on them, it’s a real party atmosphere.”
“Well if I find any attractive lesbians I’ll check them out for you and if you find any nice guys you can do the same for me.”
“Deal,” she grinned, “I can do that. Men are just drawn to the blonde hair and when they find out I’m Danish they want me to mimic the apple strudel lady,” she switched to a Danish accent, “and fold it and roll it and fold it again.”
“I remember that ad,” I smiled, “now that woman I might sleep with.”
“Me too, she’s so hot she could melt Antarctica.”
The fifteen minute shopping expedition lasted the better part of half an hour and in that time I found myself drawn to her. Sigrid was 28 going on 29, she’d worked in banking for over six years, two of them with Danske Bank in Denmark and HSBC in London. She did eighteen months at the State Bank before moving to Westpac. She’d bought a house in Olinda twelve months ago but got tired of travelling all the way into Box Hill every day.
“I met Melanie when her husband did my pergola, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. When she heard I was looking to transfer she called Human Resources and lo and behold my transfer application magically appeared.”
She was the second oldest daughter, the oldest was Agnetha. She was married had two kids and lived bahis şirketleri out in Mooroolbark, she was also a doctor out at Maroondah hospital.
“Then there’s Caroline, she’s twenty six and lives not far from you, she teaches fabric construction at Box Hill Tafe,” she leaned on our supermarket trolley, “so if you ever want the perfect party dress go and see her.”
“The perfect dress for the perfect man?”
“Yep,” she reached over and picked up some cheese, “I’ll find the man and she’ll make the dress, Agnetha will deliver the baby and if he turns out to be a bastard then Elke can put him in handcuffs, she’s a constable out at Maroondah,” she dropped the cheese into the trolley.
“So, we’ve got all the angles covered, leave it to beaver,” she giggled.
I smiled and Sigrid’s eyes narrowed.
“Ten o’clock, the redhead in the white tee shirt.”
I turned to look at a woman in her late twenties some distance away.
“You like her?”
“Yum yum, she’s only buying for one, I wonder if she’s straight?”
“You want to find out?”
“Lead the way.”
It was truly bizarre I reasoned to a girlfriend over the phone that night.
“I mean I was just chatting to her like I do with any other woman, but I was trying to steer the conversation around to sex without coming onto her.”
“Sounds weird, she sounds weird.”
“But weird in a good way,” I decided, “it was all a bit of fun and we still didn’t find out but at least we know that Debbie is a fitness instructor and she lives in Wonga Park.”
“Rather you than me,” Tracey replied, “I’m not against them but I couldn’t hang out with them.”
“I’m not hanging out with them just one.”
“That’s how it starts,” she warned me, “but it’s up to you.”
Had it started already? Tracey’s words came back to me a few times that weekend as I caught up on housework and went through one of the boxes in Cathy’s old room. This box had a diary in it and I found myself flipping through it, recalling old memories.
Cathy was a prolific writer and this box was filled with diaries and notepads. Another box held her photo albums filled with pictures from around the world and in many of them she was with other people. It was in her nature to make friends, many of them sent cards to mum and as was typical for her, she tossed them in the bin the day she died. But I had her personal stuff and I contemplated changing my will just in case I suffered the same fate, I could just imagine mum’s glee at getting hold of some of Cathy’s souvenirs and consigning them to the flames.
I felt Cathy’s presence more than once that weekend and now and then thought of Sigrid and the incident in Coles. There was something about the woman that was both familiar and foreign and as I got ready for work that Monday morning I felt a growing anxiety as I thought about the promise I’d made to Melanie.
How the hell do I do this?
As chance would have it, a brooch Cathy had picked up in Egypt was sitting on my windowsill. It was dark green and often used to fasten a hijab, apparently. Cathy had been playing with it a day before she was taken to hospital for the last time and it’d been there ever since.
The uniform specified a silk kerchief but there were different ways to wear it and Melanie would never send me home for not wearing a kerchief. I fastened the top button of my blouse and pinned the brooch at the top and studied my reflection. My auburn hair was wavy and stopped just past my collar. I flicked at my hair as I recalled Cathy’s words.
I’m watching over you.
I closed my eyes as the butterflies rose in startled flight and then I heard Cathy’s voice.
“You can do this,” I told myself, “do it for Cathy or Melanie but do it.”
Nevertheless, as it turned out my anxiety was unfounded and I felt somewhat deflated at the morning briefing as Melanie read out a statement from H.R that laid out their equal opportunity policies, which stated in no uncertain terms the penalty for harassing staff.
“It’s come to my attention that certain members of my team have crossed the line with a certain member of staff. Consider this your first and final warning,” her eyes flickered from one to the other, “I will not tolerate this kind of poison. Our jobs are hard enough without certain individuals harassing their colleagues.”
She smiled at me.
“And I would like to welcome Louise back, we’ve missed you,” she nodded at the door, “now let’s open the doors and try to be a little bit nicer to each other.”
There was a moment of stunned silence. One or two people looked at Jane and then Sigrid stepped forward.
“I’ll open the doors.”
I followed her to the doors to tidy up the deposit and withdrawal slips. It felt as if Melanie had pulled the rug out from under me or maybe she just didn’t want to put me under too much pressure, but either way I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment.
“Do you want to have lunch together?”
I looked up. Sigrid was pulling out slips that had been doodled on by children.
“Yeah, it’s a meal usually taken in the middle of the day. Do you want the Danish word for it?”
“No that’s fine,” I replied, “and yes.”
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