*‘Thin Black Line’ was first published in Award Winning Australian Writing, Melbourne Books, 2009
It is 6.00 am. Laura watches the thin black line creep along the screen of Karl’s laptop like a poisonous snake slithering silently towards her, waiting to sink its deadly fangs into what was meant to have been a perfect life.
She had gone to the dinner party alone on Saturday, making the usual magnanimous excuses for Karl … hectic schedule … conference in Paris … stopping off in Bangkok for a meeting on the way home … Long into the night she had laughed along with all her old university friends and even managed to hide the true depth of her misery from Naomi, who had taken her aside and whispered that she would be miserable too if she couldn’t have a drink – and really, was it worth it, having a kid, if you had to give up alcohol?
Laura is eight weeks pregnant and knows she should be happy. It has taken her two years to conceive this much-wanted child and two more years before that to convince Karl. Not that he had expressed any such doubts about a second family prior to their marriage, she is sure of this. Laura’s difficulty in falling pregnant had not been due to matters relating to fertility, but rather to the practical impossibility of conceiving a child with a partner who was never home. Laura had even joked that she would have to fly over to meet him at the vital time of the month. Although it hadn’t been a joke.
So inside of her is buried treasure, spoils of a hard-fought battle. She told Karl the good news when he arrived home yesterday, jet-lagged but buoyant about the possibility of yet another joint venture. He immediately proceeded to question her on the estimated time of arrival, keen to make the necessary amendments to plans and schedules. He was clearly relieved upon concluding that a February birth didn’t look like being too big an inconvenience.
What have I done? she thinks, as she stares at the thin black line, consumed by the memory of Jason’s hands falling around her waist as they passed through a narrow doorway at Naomi and Oliver’s place. Hands placed around her waist in the friendly manner of old friends. But they weren’t just old friends. And Laura can still feel the imprint of Jason’s hands and she can feel more than that, she can feel the contour of his whole body pressed into hers and it is hard and strong and it was hers. Hers. And she had thrown it away for a big house and a boat and the bright city lights of far away places …
The thin black line is monitoring in real-time the rate at which crude oil is being pumped from beneath the seabed to a floating rig in the Timor Sea. That thin black line is Karl’s life-line. The Wellington Project is his baby; the pipes pumping that crude oil are the umbilical cords, keeping the project alive. Like any gestation there are risks and Karl has lived through times of paralysing panic. Playing with eighty million dollars of investors’ money is not fun when machinery fails, when replacement parts do not arrive as promised, when cyclone warnings are on the horizon. And last month, as Managing Director of Harcourt Petroleum, Karl was bombarded with all three. He had established the petroleum exploration company ten years earlier in the wake of an unexpected divorce. Karen upped and left for reasons he still feels were never fully explained, articulated only as some vague need for a life of her own. He still feels, in his more irascible moments, that it was his life she took with her. His house, his boys, his dog. He dealt with the disappointment of it all by burying himself in work and women. As the company became more successful he again felt the need to be surrounded by the trappings of success, the barbed blessings of domesticity. He bought a stylish townhouse by The Bay and hired an interior designer to turn it into the sort of place the right woman, when he found her, just wouldn’t want to leave. And find her he did on one of his early morning strolls along the foreshore. She was youthful, elegant, well-organised. He was rich, established, and in good shape for a bloke only a few years shy of fifty.
As soon as he is out of the bathroom, Karl detours to the kitchen, towel wrapped around his just thickening waist. He heads for his laptop which is in its customary position on the kitchen bench and examines the thin black line. He nods, satisfied, then looks up and smiles at his wife who is filling the coffee pot. She looks well for a woman in the early stages of pregnancy, but with Laura he would have expected nothing less. Perhaps a baby won’t be so bad, he thinks, his mind scheduling a reminder to get his secretary to look into hiring a nanny.
The thin black line always comes first. Laura knows this. Karl’s response to the news of his wife’s pregnancy had been mostly neutral, as if it applied to some second cousin twice removed. But Laura understands only too well that her baby is not his baby. His baby lives in the Timor Sea where it is thriving, getting stronger by the day and, like any unborn child, starting to take more from its mother, sapping energy, leaving the mother tired and bad-tempered. She knows she must be more understanding. Less demanding. Because if marriage to Karl has resulted in one good thing, it is that she has come to appreciate a decidedly unattractive aspect of her personality. Something her mother disguised and repackaged as ‘you want to run before you can walk’ but which she now recognises as greed. Laura knows that avariciousness is at the root of her being, at the crux of her decision making.
She is greedy.
And oh, yes, isn’t that an ugly word? A word that is swollen with pre-packaged images. Laura had looked into the bathroom mirror that morning and seen her svelte figure from the inside, reaching out, grabbing at her; a grasping, bloated creature stuffing herself, her life, full. FULL. But I am not a bad person, she reminds herself quickly, mentally listing her virtues as she pours herself a bowl of cereal. She recycles, walks to work, carbon offsets where she can. She gives generously to charity. Refuses to flirt with her ex-boyfriend. She can see that Jason is happy with Ellen. She will not reach out to entangle him within her octopus-like limbs although she knows she could do it. But how she wants him. Wants him. And how she wants Karl. How she wants to be wanted. And suddenly she remembers the baby and knows everything is going to be all right. This baby will need me, she thinks. This baby will make me a better person.
At the dinner party she had sipped her pre-dinner non-alcoholic cocktail while listening to Ellen recount the arrival of a long-awaited lounge suite, her face glowing with pleasure as she spoke.
Pleasure. Now there is a full, rounded word also brimming with meaning. In her desire to acquire, Laura knows she has missed out on those small pleasures to be found in working and waiting for what you want, the scrimping and saving that have been a feature of Ellen and Jason’s life. ‘You must find all this so tedious,’ Ellen had said to her, appearing slightly embarrassed to be sounding so materialistic in the company of someone who everyone knew embodied the true meaning of the word. And Laura, because suddenly she couldn’t help it, and because Jason’s hands were still hot around her waist, had remarked haughtily that we all want for different things, and that right at that minute what she wanted was for her husband to be there with her.
Because what she had not added when she mentioned that Karl had stopped over in Bangkok for a meeting on his way home was that the meeting had been with his sons who were backpacking around Asia. Karl had rung her from Bangkok to let her know he would be delayed a few days as he was stopping off to catch up with Dom and Lachie, let off a bit of steam after the stress of the past few weeks. ‘I need a bit of a break,’ he had said. ‘It’ll be good spending a few days with the boys.’ It would be good spending a few days with me, she had thought from the other end of the phone. So desperately wanting to be wanted.
‘It must be hard for you with Karl being away so much,’ Ellen had said to her, commiserating without understanding. After all, she had Jason.
She left the company of the old crowd that evening wondering how a life that had once seemed so complete could have begun to unravel so comprehensively. Back at her designer townhouse she had thrown her handbag and jacket over the back of a designer chair and begun to wander around her open-plan living room eyeing critically the objets d’art placed here and there with such care and precision. An eclectic mix, the lifestyle magazines would have called it, with many pieces collected on trips Laura and Karl had taken together in the early days of their relationship, more recent items brought home by Karl as gifts. Replacement parts for the missing bits of himself, she now suspects. Her eyes had remained fixed on a beautiful Murano glass vase, all subtle blue hues and misty swirls. An anniversary present celebrating an absent partner, a marriage gone AWOL.
Here I am, this is me, she had thought as she ran her fingertips over the smooth, polished glaze of the vase. Beautiful. Valued. But ultimately unnecessary.
Utterly unnecessary, she had whispered aloud, holding the vase in front of her, staring at her distracted, distorted reflection in its glaze, watching as it slipped from her fingers, shattering into a hundred sharp shards at her feet.
Laura pours Karl a cup of coffee, a cup of chamomile tea for herself, and sits down at the kitchen table next to her husband. She knows better than to enquire into what is happening out in the Timor Sea, but she can tell from Karl’s disposition that all is going well.
‘We have a dinner engagement tomorrow tonight,’ he tells her. ‘You know the couple, my old school friend Jim and his second wife, Sonia.’
Second wife. That’s me, she thinks.
‘They’re back in town after spending a few years in London. I want to have a word to them about the school their kids attend. Sounds perfect. They have mid-week boarding. Just one or two nights if you want. That way you don’t have to worry about nannies and babysitters.’
‘Aren’t Isaac and Isabel only three? she asks, thinking she must have got the couple confused with another. Karl has so many old friends. So many second wives.
‘Three? That’s right, I think. Mid-week boarding is available from three years, Jim was telling me. Good for busy people, career couples and blokes like us.’
Blokes like us? What exactly does that mean? she wonders. The ones with the superfluous offspring? The blokes who have done it all before and are only prepared to pay lip service to fatherhood the second time around?
‘The curriculum is excellent,’ he remarks. ‘Very progressive, yet steeped in traditional values. Even teach Latin.’
Traditional values? And that would be: out of sight, out of mind? Spare the rod and spoil the child? Oh, God, what have I done? But even as she thinks this she is aware of her fingers running along the polished surface of her blackwood kitchen table, her eyes admiring the perfection of the workmanship, the originality of the design. She looks over to her favorite sofa, in the sunny spot by the bay window, and can feel her fingers kneading the soft Italian leather, seeking out the sheer luxury of it. She knows she will not rise up, storm from the room at Karl’s outrageous remarks. She will remain seated, swimming between the safety flags, sinking into luxury.
She had told Karl about the shattered Murano vase, apologised for her carelessness. ‘Never mind,’ he had said. ‘I’m off to Italy again next month. I’ll see if I can pick up something similar.’
Another vase. A second vase. Beautiful. Valuable. Replaceable.
Just like me, she thinks.
Yet visible. Always there on a mantelpiece or dresser, not hidden away in some outer suburb, along with credit cards piled high, and weary wives waiting for the arrival of the lounge suite. Waiting for easier times that would never come.
And, suddenly, Laura knows that in her heart, buried under layers of sadness, is the cold, hard truth. The knowledge that Jason’s six-pack and sweet sense of humour would never have been enough either …
And as she thinks about this she stands up, walks over to Karl, puts her arms around her husband and nuzzles his neck. She is gratified when he reaches up and gently entwines her fingers in his. She understands now, with bittersweet conviction, that the calculated, costly decision made six years earlier to pack up her belongings from a small, uninspiring rented flat and transfer them to a large, light townhouse overlooking The Bay had been the right one. And while she appreciates that it is quite possible that, like her beautiful Murano vase, she may one day fall to the floor she knows also that no matter how shattered she will be, she will always be able to pick up the pieces.
And she knows – reassuringly – that she will be able to recover from the ordeal while reclining on her Italian leather sofa, a glass of Moet, or perhaps Veuve Clicquot, clasped between her manicured fingertips.