DONNA COUTTS LIVES IN MACLEOD, ON THE NORTHERN EDGE OF MELBOUNE, BUT THIS STORY IS INFORMED BY HER UPBRINGING IN RURAL VICTORIA.
Vida wasn’t there. There was a space in the room between Carol and Jean that should have been filled by Vida. Vida not here? No, Jean, Vida’s not here. Carol leaned a little into the space where Vida should have been and Jean rearranged skeins of fluoro wool and polystyrene balls to take up Vida’s portion of the trestle. One o’clock Tuesdays at the Memorial Hall. That was Craft. They weren’t getting the numbers anymore but Carol, Jean, Vida and maybe four others were there every week — save for Jean’s annual trip up north. Vida wasn’t there because she’d left. Left Craft. Left town. Left Terry. Left the grandkids with Terry. Left them all in the lurch.
Hot air fell out of the hall into the morning when Terry opened the big doors on Friday. The committee came for an hour at 10, and hung pastel balloons, and washed cups and saucers, clucking and flashing him tight little smiles. By midday, Terry had put chairs around the walls, filled electric urns, broken up cobwebs in the toilets and swept the floorboards, which could use a bit of love. Back home he arranged Anzacs he’d made on Vida’s Royal Doulton. Stood back to assess his work. The bikkies looked not unlike Vida’s, though he suspected the Doulton was only for sandwiches.
Vida settled herself across two-thirds of the coach seat. Country Mints in the net pocket, That’s Life on her knee, crochet bag at her feet. Cousin Gloria had worked herself into a state when Vida rang, thinking she was landing on her any minute. But Adelaide was 11 hours plus, according to the driver. Vida hadn’t seen Gloria since Leanne’s wedding and Gloria had looked a little brassy even then. When they were girls, Gloria epitomised glamour. She epitomised freedom the day she’d driven off to Adelaide with that bloke who played guitar in a band that was on the radio. The farthest Vida got was Warracknabeal, for Miss Showgirl 1963. The thought of Leanne’s wedding made her sick to her stomach. So much money. So much kerfuffle. All over a handful of years, her and Terry left to bring up Leanne’s kids. You were supposed to think ill of the man but Vida couldn’t see he’d done wrong but choose an impossible wife. Leanne was a disappointment. You shouldn’t say that about your daughter. But no one was going to know Vida had thought it. First hint of hard times and Leanne had hitchhiked out, quick as look at you. Leanne, the image of Terry, standing on the front lawn that last day spinning yarns about spreading her wings, branching out, finding herself. Find herself. Vida would have drawn her a map if she’d thought it would help. She looked at her watch. Five thirty. Tea should be on. Kids in the bath. Stories read. And tonight the Deb Ball. She sent Terry good thoughts. When she dreamed of this day, she pictured him home, managing. Didn’t want to see him fail, just couldn’t do it herself one more day. She hadn’t pictured him at the Deb without her. Maybe Carol would step in. Carol would like that.
Terry was supposed to say something to start the Deb Ball. Congratulate the committee. Compliment the girls. He cleared his throat, strained against his collar. He was sinewy anyway, but when nervous, the tendons stood out around his neck like the roots of an old box tree. He looked down at his slacks, lined up knife-sharp creases with floorboards. Vida’s creases. Every day, except for funerals and the Deb, Terry wore Wrangler jeans and Vida ironed a crease in those, too.