Maggie has parked her implacable arse in its usual spot on the edge of the stone retaining wall that keeps my terraced garden from invading the house. She has a cigarette in one hand and a globe of semillon in the other. The glass sliding door is open only enough so that I can hear her from the kitchen, where I am throwing a salad together. Her crossed legs don’t quite reach the ground and she dangles her flat suede shoes off her toes while her substantial calves stretch the hem of her jersey shirt. She alternates puffing and sipping with the haranguing that sisters normally reserve for their younger brothers.
‘When are you and Charlie going to fix this fence anyway?’
‘When we get around to it.’
‘It’s been like this for months,’ she says, gesturing with her cigarette at the gaps in the fence and the rotted palings propped up against it.
‘And it could be like it for several more months,’ I say as I walk outside and place the salad bowl in the middle of the table with a louder thump than is necessary.
Maggie stubs out her cigarette and hops down from her perch to sit at one of the set places. I head over to the barbeque where our dinner is still wrapped in foil.
Pouring us more wine she says over her shoulder, ‘Did I tell you I bumped into Anne Richards the other day?’
Great. Here we go. It was only a matter of time. I sigh. ‘So what did she have to say?’
‘Says Caroline has decided to head off to Europe for a few months. She’s leaving at the end of this week.’
‘I don’t suppose I got any credit for putting that idea into her head.’
‘She didn’t mention you in that context, no.’
I pause in the unwrapping of our snapper to give her a questioning look.
‘Oh come on, Robert. You know she’s had her heart set on you marrying Caroline since you were teenagers. It’s going to take her a while to get over it. Probably longer than her daughter.’
Maggie swirled her wine around in its glass for a moment while she watched me serve the fish. The air between us was becoming constipated with Maggie’s pent up questions.
‘Is there someone else? Is that what this is all about?’
‘Look Mags, I’ve told you there isn’t. Why do you have to keep asking?’
‘Because I just don’t get why a guy like you would walk away from a sweet and beautiful girl like Caroline. And I was bloody looking forward to having some equally gorgeous nieces and nephews.’
‘Well don’t take your bitterness out on me. The fact of the matter is I’d run out of banal conversations to have with her. I couldn’t talk about work with her; she’s never read a proper paper in her life much less a decent book; she hangs around with people whose biggest decision every day is what to wear or where to have lunch. I woke up one morning looking down this long tunnel of inescapable boredom.’
‘Was she any good in bed?’
I laugh for the first time this evening. ‘That makes far more sense to you than any of my other reasons doesn’t it?’
‘Well you hear about these beautiful women that just lie there like dead fish and think their work’s done just by looking good.’
‘It wasn’t quite like that. Great sex starts between your ears as far as I’m concerned. Being outwardly attractive certainly helps but there has to be an inward generator behind that mere impression; and there has to be more than that even, particularly if it’s to be sustained over a lifetime. We just didn’t have that kind of rapport.’
‘Don’t you think it’s impractical to expect to be married to the same person for life? People change so much – and we live so much longer now! I heard this guy on the radio the other day saying we go through three stages in life and we need different partners for each. Sex and romance to start off; a good parent to breed and raise children with, and then a companion for your later years. It’s only the incredibly lucky who find their partner meets all of these very different life cycle needs.’
‘Sounds like the perfect argument for people who are too lazy to make an effort.’
‘Like you with Caroline?’
‘Look.’ I lay down my knife and fork. ‘I made a decision not to put any more effort into building a house on sand, Maggie. When I find rock, I’ll try harder than anyone.’
‘I’d just like to know how that’s ever going to happen when you live at work. I swear you and Aiden have a thing for each other.’
‘You know what? I think it’s time we started talking about your love life and work-life balance. I find it incredible that my promiscuous chain-smoking hard-drinking midnight oil-burning journo sister can be sitting here telling me how to live my life! How do you plead?’
‘Have I ever told you what a fantastic chef you are darling? This fish is cooked to perfection.’