This excerpt is the first chapter from The Frozen Woman, a novel about the wife of a disgraced Ponzi schemer.
Finn and Karen both liked the shared playground in the evening just before it got dark, when he had the run of the place and she could smoke without being told off. The green glow of the adjacent traffic lights and the faint beat of a Korean pop song from the karaoke bar opposite, made it feel almost like somewhere exciting. The new play equipment was all dressed up in a jungle theme so that a roaring lion’s mouth marked the exit to the slide and rope vines scrambled up a palm tree. Fibreboard scorpions, spiders and snakes sneaked and slithered around the fence. A half smile came over Finn’s face as he swung back and forth, rewarding her full attention.
A light flicked on high up in the flats behind, and she saw Bridget, the new neighbour, gazing out her window as if looking for answers to her problems in the panel beater’s across the way. Then she turned towards a mirror, tipped something from a bottle into her hand, and stroked her shoulder-length blonde hair.
Dense cloud had settled down behind the flats so the hills were no longer visible. As a murmuring crowd spilled out of the Salvation Army Recovery Church down the road, a distant plane rumbled through the moist air. A couple of spatters of rain hit the back of Karen’s hands. It wasn’t good for her leather jacket to get damp, so she took it off and laid it under the bench.
Finn moved from the swings onto the whirligig, which surprised her. The last time he’d gone on it he’d got stuck and couldn’t stop spinning, and he screamed and screamed. She’d been distracted talking to another mother. This time he looked confident, blissed-out even, with his head thrown back and his eyes closed. Perhaps it was the influence of starting school, though she doubted it. In the mornings he was still throwing full-scale tantrums and it was hard to imagine it was doing him any good.
In the window Bridget applied foundation with a sponge in small circles, then took a moment to assess her face. It was like watching a drive-in movie. Chest forward, she fiddled with her bra. Next time Karen saw her she would tell her how much you could see from outside. Other people in the flats had their lace curtains closed all the time.
She felt ashamed watching but Bridget was brightly lit and everything else around was grey. The flats themselves were made of dingy concrete; a complex of two story buildings arranged in an uneven pattern on the corner of two busy roads, just misaligned enough to look like they were trying to hide behind each other. Bright green exit signs hung on the walls so that the residents could find their own doors in an emergency.
She didn’t mean to be joining in with the campaign of nosiness that was going around. Steve, who lived down the hall, had burst into her room one night after coming home from the Tiger Bar and shown her a sweepstake the flatties had drawn up on a napkin, taking guesses at where Bridget had come from. Most of the flats residents were new immigrants, long-time solo mothers, or former mental health patients and she had to agree that Bridget seemed like she was in a different category. Guesses so far had included actress, air hostess, sex worker, model, and undercover policewoman. Steve, in awe, had put down ‘goddess’ as well.
She’d met Bridget a few times before in the playground with her son Jack. She was chattier than most of the other mums, asking all kinds of questions: her theories on the local schools, which of the greengrocers down the road was the best, what opportunities there were in the neighbourhood for getting some exercise. Never anything about Finn’s dad though – not wanting to pry – Karen didn’t ask about Jack’s father either. She made up some opinions on the fly so that she had something to say. Bridget had wondered if she might like to go for some walks with her because the flats were giving her cabin fever. Running around after kids was more than enough exercise, she found, but she said maybe, to be polite.
Finn got himself out of the whirligig and looked at her. She gave him a thumbs-up and he returned it. Well done him learning something new. He bobbed down by a puddle to watch a twig spinning. Soon she would get him to bed, then she could have a drink out on the fire escape.
Bridget was up to eyeliner, which she applied in one slow, steady sweep on each eye. Karen herself had never engaged with the whole make up thing. Her mum was a suburban hairdresser who’d made strenuous efforts to get her prettied up when she was young, and it had been part of her teenage rebellion which she’d never got past, that she didn’t go near any of it. It drove her mum mad that she’d insisted on leaving her thick ginger hair and eyelashes as they were.
She stubbed out the end of one cigarette, lit another, and flicked the butt into the bark chips by the flaxes. Many years ago, when her daughter Poppy was little and she’d first moved into the flats, there had just been a big patch of concrete and no playground, and she had been able to smoke out there any time she liked while Poppy rode around on her trike. The concrete had been the social hub of the flats back then. Now there were more facilities and fewer kids and the hub had moved to the Tiger Bar. She went there sometimes when Finn was staying at his grandmother’s or when Poppy came home for a few days and could babysit, but more often she relied on Steve or her other neighbour Jacinta to tell her what was going on.
Finn had made a tiny raft of an orange leaf balanced on two twigs and he called her over to have a look. As she stood up, Bridget turned her head and looked outside. For a second she looked horrified but then she recognised Karen and smiled and waved. Her smile was quick and impressive, going from zero to a hundred miles an hour in nanoseconds. Karen waved back, then looked down at Finn’s raft. Its hulls had drifted apart from the body, but she put it back together and admired it anyway.
A woman’s hand struggled with the air pressure lock on the playground gate a couple of minutes later. It was meant to be kiddie-proof but it wasn’t obvious for adults either in the dark. Bridget came in, stood beside Karen, and looked up at the window of her flat.
‘I shouldn’t have got rid of that curtain,’ she said.
‘Yeah. It was hideous.’ She looked up again. ‘I’ll have to think of something else.’ She sat on the bench opposite.
‘Where’s Jack?’ asked Karen.
‘At his dad’s. He’s having him for weekends.’
Why did Bridget’s face look so radiant? There was one street lamp way across the road. Her skin almost glowed in the dark. There were a couple of health freaks in the building who didn’t smoke or drink or eat sugar who had pretty nice skin, but this was in another category.
‘Had a good day?’ Bridget asked.
‘Yeah not too bad. We did story time at the library.’ The library was just across the road and it was another venue that suited them both because she could read the free magazines while the librarian made herself hoarse.
‘Yes. Good.’ She was brisk, decisive. ‘I had lunch with my husband and son.’
‘Oh.’ People sounded weird when they talked about their ‘husband’ or their ‘wife’, like they were staking out a claim.
‘We’re having a trial separation thing but sometimes we eat together.’
‘I had the swordfish.’
‘Wow.’ She’d had been to the local commercial burger joint for dinner with Finn, and spent a long time watching him and his chunky new friend squish through plastic tunnels. ‘Are you off out somewhere now?’
‘A jewellery opening.’
‘What, like an opening of a jewellery shop?’
‘More like an art show. Art jewellery.’ She pulled a brochure out of her bag and passed it across. On the front there was a selection of irregular silver rings with growths coming out of them, mini iceberg shapes, a cluster of silver barnacles filled with rubies, a round pink stone poking out of a golden clump.
‘You wouldn’t be able to wear them would you?’ said Karen.
‘They’re more collector pieces.’
‘Do you think you’ll get one?’
‘No. I just want to see what what’s going on. See some people.’
On the next page was a broach made of crumpled miniaturised chicken wire in a bottle lid.
Another couple of drops of rain landed on Karen’s face and streaks caught in the orange light of the intersection. Bridget’s neighbour Jean, a tiny woman in her seventies, pushed a pale blue motorbike past them, out toward the street.
‘I wonder where she goes on her little bike,’ said Bridget.
Karen shrugged. Jean delivered small packages in tinfoil, but Bridget could work that out for herself. She had the flat right next-door to her, and along further were the young Sri Lankan couple, Ruchira and Harsha.
Finn came over to sit by her on the bench and leaned against her.
‘Hey Finn,’ said Bridget. ‘How’s school going?’
They exchanged a best-not-to-talk-about-it look.
Rain began to stream down. Reflections of car headlights made rainbows on the slick as she retrieved her jacket from under the bench. The three of them stood, caught for a moment between politeness and needing to find shelter, then she and Finn made a dash for their front door.
‘See you,’ said Bridget as she ran out towards her car.