Even though it’s raining our book club is still meeting tonight, the third Saturday of the month. Sometimes Patty’s friend Bronwyn plays the harp while we eat our dinner making us feel very civilised. Personally I could do with a little less of the musical interlude and a little more quaffing of the shiraz, a little more giggly chit-chat free of the censorship of the men. However I have to accept there are horses for courses, and tonight’s horse is under Patty’s expert whip.
Amanda is getting out.
We have been meeting for twenty years, long before Amanda joined us. A different person’s house each month, give or take the holiday season. There is a core group of about six people, although we have sometimes swelled to twice that. Amanda was a stalwart regular who certainly loved her literature. I think tonight it will be a small turn out. The rain. Over the years, however, we have prevailed. All those books. All that conviviality. It certainly beats what the company of our various husbands has to offer. I admit there is something to be said for their monotony, their routine stability; it’s just that I forget what it is at the moment. I get the sense that they, the husbands, are slightly envious of the regularity of our meetings. The effervescence we bring home, and which takes a day or two to fade. They resent their irrelevance, and this comes across in sarcasm.
‘For Heaven’s sake Toby,’ I say to Toby when he makes his usual objections, ‘we only meet once a month. You meet with your buddies every weekend.’
‘Why is it different?’
‘Because I don’t walk out without – without – adapting for the needs of the other members of the household.’
‘If you like.’
‘You mean leaving your dinner in the oven.’
‘If you like.’
‘Get your own dinner. Once a month. It won’t kill you.’
Toby is putting on a good display of umbrage.
‘Well what do you talk about, at these special meetings of yours?’
‘This month’s book.’
‘And all the gossip.’
‘Yes Toby,’ I sigh, reaching for my keys, ‘That’s all we do. Gossip about you.’
You see what I have to contend with.
This month there are only four of us, although it’s always a good excuse to get together and chew the fat. Also to experiment with recipes for which our husbands would not be willing guinea pigs. Tonight it’s Asian-infused swordfish with greens, (Patty’s choice), and of course the latest Booker winner, which I admit I struggled through, and in the end skipped to the last chapter. Nevertheless it is very stimulating to discuss the issues raised by the latest Booker winner. Toby’s opinion wouldn’t amount to a burp.
I am the first to arrive at Patty’s house with my contribution, balsamic beans and a bottle of chardy. The sensor lights guide me up the drive. Her garden looks good, even at night. The doorbell plays a little allegro. We kiss. Patty already has a tumbler of plonk with her lipstick at the rim. The cleaner has been, so the house looks particularly sparkly. There is a new painting on the feature wall, which Patty pointedly ignores. The fruit bowl is full. There are gerberas on the table. Soon Gina arrives and we have a quorum. We are well on the way, cooking up a storm, discussing plot points and character development over biscuits and brie. Gina opens a bottle and catches up with Patty in no time. You’d have to say that sometimes our book club floats on a sea of alcohol.
The doorbell trills again. It’s Tanya. She’s always the last. We all love her, even though she has six sleepers in each ear and a rhinestone stud in her nose. I sometimes wonder if her head jingles when she shakes it? And how does she sleep with all that metal digging into her? Apparently there is a tattoo somewhere on her person, although I have never seen it. As she comes in with a Pyrex casserole dish under her arm and an agonized look on her face the laughter falls like dark matter at our feet.
‘What’s happened?’ Gina asks.
‘Have you had an accident?’ Patty asks.
‘You look as though you’ve seen a sprite,’ I say.
‘You haven’t heard?’ Tanya says, putting her dish down. Her raincoat drips on the polished floor. ‘No. Obviously not. It’s Amanda. She’s coming.’
The air in the room suddenly freezes. Actually I had heard, but I’d been hoping the whole issue would just go away.
I see I am going to have to explain about Amanda. But first:
‘When did she get out?’ Gina asks.
‘A fortnight ago.’
We all pause to register this fact and, frankly, measure it.
‘Where is she living?’ Patty asks, looking around at her furniture.
‘With her mother.’
‘My God, that woman must be nearly eighty,’ I say.
‘Well,’ says Tanya, ‘she has nowhere else to go.’
‘I thought she was never supposed to get out,’ says Gina.
‘No,’ Tanya explains. ‘She was eligible for parole a year ago, but they held her back.’
‘Oh my God,’ Patty says again, and this just about sums up the new mood in the room. The latest Booker winner sits in my bag, heavy as a brick.
* * *
Amanda was a member of our group almost from the beginning. Even afterwards, when she was in jail she used to write us letters giving her opinion on the issues raised in whatever book we happened to be reading. It was strange to read those letters, as if what had happened was a figment, something that took place only in the newspapers. Initially I wondered how she knew what book we were reading, until Tanya explained that she had been writing to Amanda, giving her all our news. She was like a pen pal, Tanya said, except that Amanda’s letters had little to say. Nothing ever happened. Mostly her letters were recollections of the past, or yearnings for the trivia that swirled about the whirlpool of the book club. When we learned of this we said: ‘Please give her our regards. Say hello from us. Wish her well,’ although no one asked for the address so we could write to her ourselves. I had my reasons. I’m sure we all did.
As the years went by marriages came and went, various members of the book club fell away. Enough time passed that it just became inconvenient to think about Amanda. Her husband, Richard, had gone. It was like she’d been swallowed by the past and that terrible time was now over, thank goodness. Everyone had their own lives to be getting on with. One day Tanya declared that she was going to visit Amanda in the prison. That certainly got the tongues wagging. Tanya asked if I would like to go with her, it was Amanda’s birthday after all, but as with the letters, I cooked up some excuse for which I am now ashamed. Something to do with Toby.
‘Here? Tonight?’ Patty asks, the apprehension in her voice taut as an elastic band.
‘Bronwyn’s bringing her.’
‘I don’t know if I can have that woman in my house.’
She looks around for moral support. There is plenty.
‘Why?’ Tanya asks.
This is a good question and I look to Patty because I am not sure what the answer is.
‘Why?’ Tanya repeats. ‘It’s Amanda. You remember Amanda. She was your bridesmaid. She’s a member of the group. She’s one of us.’
‘I am not like her,’ Gina takes a big swig from her tumbler. No one has thought to pour a glass for Tanya, who shrugs off her raincoat and hangs it on the back of a chair. Gravity helps form a little puddle beneath it.
‘Why didn’t you let us know?’ Patty asks.
‘I only just found out myself,’ says Tanya.
‘But you’ve been in contact with her. You knew she was getting parole.’
It does not matter who says this; we are all thinking it.
At this moment Patty’s son Nick strolls into the room, like an unexpectedly big wave at the beach. He peers into Patty’s saucepans bubbling away on the stove. He is a tall, striking boy of about sixteen, with shoulder length hair. He is the sort the girls are swooning over, if girls ever swoon these days. It is as if all the middle-aged ladies in the room are invisible to him.
‘What’s for dinner, Mum?’
‘That’s for us,’ snaps Patty, ‘Your father is taking you and your sister out for Indian.’
‘Mad,’ says Nick, replacing a saucepan lid and strolling – cruising, is that the word? – out of the room. All the footprints on the beach wiped clean behind him.
‘I knew she was eligible for parole,’ says Tanya, ‘I didn’t know she was actually going to get it. I was as shocked as you. She rang me out of the blue.’
‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ Patty asks.
‘I’m telling you now.’
Even I can hear that Patty is chastising Tanya as if it’s all her fault. Her lovely Asian-infused swordfish evening is turning into a disaster.
‘I thought she was locked away forever,’ says Gina, who suddenly looks much plumper and red faced than she did a minute ago. ‘I mean, I never actually thought of her getting out. What did they call her? She had some label.’
‘She was what they call a forensic patient,’ says Tanya. ‘She’s not anymore.’
The pots are steaming on the stovetop. Patty flicks on an extractor fan, which hums smoothly.
‘What does that mean?’ I ask.
‘It means she’s crazy,’ says Gina, topping up her tumbler to the brim.
‘Was crazy,’ says Tanya, ‘at the time of the offence. It was a mitigating factor.’
‘Oh for goodness sake,’ snaps Patty, ‘Stop pussyfooting about the bush. She strangled her own baby. She put her hands around her neck and squeezed until the baby went blue.’
There is silence. That cuts straight to the point, the one we have been trying to block out of our minds all these years. At the time the newspapers dot-pointed: Young mother found guilty. Fourteen-month-old baby. Infanticide. History of post-natal depression. Other grisly details besides. There was a photo of Amanda in handcuffs. It wasn’t the Amanda we knew.
‘I’m not having that person in my living room,’ says Patty, ‘sitting on my chaise lounge.’
We consider the inflexibility of this remark.
‘Do you think she should still be punished then?’ asks Tanya.
‘Our friend, Amanda. You think she should still be punished.’
‘For what she did. Yes.’
‘She killed her own baby. A long time ago. When you were a new mother, without sleep, tits red raw and nipples split, not, as they say, in your right mind, didn’t you ever want to strangle your baby?’
‘If I did I never acted on it,’ says Patty.
‘Didn’t any of you?’ Tanya asks.
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I felt like that. Quite a bit.’
‘Well at least you never acted on it.’
‘No. I was too tired.’
‘None of us realised how depressed Amanda was,’ Tanya says. ‘Imagine how guilty she must feel. That’s not going to go away. Don’t you think she’s been punished enough? Because according to the courts she has. That is, according to society. Are you saying we should carry on with the punishment?’
From beyond the kitchen a teenage voice wails, ‘Mum, there’s something wrong with the telly.’
Patty says: ‘That child was the same age as Nick. We used to baby sit for each other.’
‘Can’t you remember the baby’s name?’ asks Tanya.
We have to think.
‘Claire,’ I recall, ‘My perfume made her sneeze.’ Then something I remember: ‘Her fontanel took a long time to close up.’
‘Don’t you think Amanda might need some support right now?’ says Tanya.
‘I think she’s got a lot of cheek,’ says Patty, ‘intruding back into our lives.’
‘You all sent your regards to her,’ Tanya continues, ‘when I wrote and when I visited. Didn’t you mean it? Do we tell her you didn’t mean it?’
‘What was that like? Visiting her,’ I ask, knowing my curiosity is coming a bit late in the day.
‘Awful,’ says Tanya, ‘If you have an underwire bra you have to take it off before you go through the metal detector. You have to talk in a quiet voice or else they terminate your visit. I tried to give her a photo, you know from that day we all went down to Inverloch. She said I wasn’t allowed to give her photos. They’d be confiscated. I had to post it to her.’
‘I remember that day,’ says Gina.
‘You’re forgetting the salient point,’ says Patty, crisply. ‘She killed her own child.’
‘And you still want to go on judging her. After all these years, Patty. She’s done her time. She’s been punished.’
‘How do you know she’s not still crazy?’ Gina asks.
‘I guess the people who decide these things reckon she’s not.’
‘That she’s fit for society,’ says Gina.
‘Something like that.’
‘What do they know? Don’t you remember that funeral?’ Patty asks.
‘Yes I do,’ Tanya says, ‘But now she’s out. She’s been condemned. She’s been locked up for fourteen years. Isn’t that punishment enough? For your satisfaction.’
‘Is that all? Just fourteen years, for a whole life?’ says Gina.
‘What does she look like?’ I ask.
‘Well she hasn’t had the tweaking that we’ve had. The question is do we still judge her?’
‘I would have thought,’ says Patty, ‘that the question is why should we forgive her?’
‘Well her husband will never forgive her,’ says Gina.
‘Isn’t that enough unforgiveness in one person’s life, without the rest of us getting in on the act?’ Tanya asks. ‘Imagine the energy it must take to sustain that. It’s not as though she’s walking back into a nice clean life. It won’t be easy for her. Do you want her to fail?’
‘Do you just want us to forget all about it?’ asks Patty.
The rain is making a quiet noise like rice tapping on the windows.
‘We don’t have to do either,’ I say, ‘We only have to give her a feed. Maybe take her shopping.’
‘Exactly,’ says Tanya. ‘What else are we for?’
‘What if she’s not rehabilitated?’ Gina asks, her eyes slightly glazed. ‘What if she tries the same thing again?’
‘I’d like to see her try and take on Nick,’ I joke.
‘Don’t be flippant,’ says Gina.
‘That’s exactly what I thought at the time,’ says Patty. ‘What if she’d been baby- sitting both of them?’
‘Mum, this bloody DVD player doesn’t work.’ Nick’s voice comes from the other room. A living, breathing, human voice followed by a thump as he gives the TV a whack.
Gina says: ‘Is that a new painting, Patty?’
We all look at the painting for a moment.
‘So we have to ask ourselves,’ Tanya says, ‘before the doorbell rings again. I’m in this boat with you. I don’t know if I’d like her sleeping in my spare room. At least I have a spare room. She has nothing. No money. No job. She doesn’t even know how to use a mobile phone. The question is do we accept her? Here, tonight. Or don’t we?’
‘She’s not like us,’ says Gina.
‘Gina, you drive home after what you’ve had to drink and knock someone off their bicycle and you’ll wind up exactly like her. I know I gave my son a clout about the ear when he was five or six and being a complete bastard. It’s just that Amanda went too far.’
‘Stop making excuses for her, ‘says Patty, ‘you didn’t have to write to her. Implying she would be welcome. You’ve caused all this. ’
‘Well I don’t know about you,’ says Gina, affronted at the allusion to how much she’s drinking, ‘but I just couldn’t stand to be in the same room as her. I’d be sick.’
‘You might be sick,’ says Tanya, ‘if you eat whatever’s burning there on the stove. Do we forgive Patty for that?’
‘My swordfish!’ Patty squeaks, jumping up.
She works the stove like the controls of a nuclear reactor. None of us laugh.
‘Patty might kill us all before the night’s out.’
‘But Patty wouldn’t mean it,’ says Gina, beginning to slur her words. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what the answer is. What would we talk to her about? How was jail? What have you been up to these last fourteen years? Read any good books? How do you deal with someone in that situation? I don’t know. I need to go to the loo…’
Gina struggles to her feet, continuing.
‘Patty, I do like that painting… I guess… I guess it’s a question for us all.’
And we watch her glide like a tug boat up the passage.