‘We’ll get a flight straight after school on Thursday,’ Tess had said. ‘Can you cope until then?’
‘Oh, I’ll be fine. Mary will help. And the neighbours.’
But Auntie Mary didn’t drive, and Uncle Phil couldn’t be expected to drive her over every day. Besides, Mary and Phil were both starting to look frail themselves. And Tess’s mother’s neighbours were ancient old ladies or busy young families who barely had time to wave hello as they backed their big cars out of their driveways. It didn’t seem likely that they’d be bringing over casseroles.
Tess had been fretting over whether she should book a flight to Sydney for the very next day, and then perhaps organise a home helper for her mother. Lucy would hate to have a stranger in the house, but how would she shower? How would she cook?
It was tricky. They had so much work on, and she didn’t like to leave Liam. He wasn’t quite himself. There was a boy in his class, Marcus, who was giving him grief. He wasn’t exactly bullying him. That would have been nice and clear cut and they could have followed the school’s sternly bullet-pointed ‘We Take A Zero-Tolerance Approach to Bullying’ Code of Practice. Marcus was more complicated than that. He was a charming little psychopath.
Something new and awful had gone on with Marcus that day at school, Tess was sure of it. She’d been giving Liam his dinner while Will and Felicity were downstairs working. Most nights she and Will and Liam, and often Felicity too, managed to eat as a family, but the Bedstuff website was meant to go live that Friday, so they were all working long hours.
Liam had been quieter than usual while he was eating his dinner. He was a dreamy, reflective little boy, he’d never been a chatterbox, but there was something so grown-up and sad about the way he mechanically speared each piece of sausage with his fork and dunked it in the tomato sauce.
‘Did you play with Marcus today?’ Tess asked.
‘Nah,’ said Liam. ‘Today’s Monday.’
But he’d closed down and refused to say another word about it, and Tess had felt rage fill her heart. She needed to talk to his teacher again. She had the strongest feeling that her child was in an abusive relationship and nobody could see it. The school playground was like a battlefield.
That’s what had been on Tess’s mind when Will had asked her if she’d come downstairs: her mother’s ankle and Marcus.
Will and Felicity had been sitting at the meeting table waiting for her. Before Tess had joined them, she’d collected all the coffee mugs that had been sitting around the office. Felicity had a habit of making herself fresh cups of coffee that she never finished. Tess put the mugs in a row on the meeting table and said, as she sat down, ‘New record, Felicity. Five half-drunk cups.’
Felicity didn’t say anything. She looked oddly at Tess, as if she felt really bad about the coffee cups, and then Will made his extraordinary announcement.
‘Tess, I don’t know how to say this,’ he said, ‘but Felicity and I have fallen in love.’
‘Very funny.’ Tess grouped the coffee cups together and smiled. ‘Hilarious.’
But it seemed it wasn’t a joke.
Now she put her hands on the honey-gold pine of the table and stared at them. Her pale, blue-veined, knuckly hands. An ex-boyfriend, she couldn’t remember which, had once told her that he was in love with her hands. Will had had a lot of trouble getting the ring over her knuckle at their wedding. Their guests had laughed softly. Will had pretended to exhale with relief once he got it on, while he secretly caressed her hand.
Tess looked up and saw Will and Felicity exchange covert worried glances.
‘So it’s true love, is it?’ said Tess. ‘You’re soul mates, are you?’
A nerve throbbed in Will’s cheek. Felicity tugged at her hair.
Yes. That’s what they were both thinking. Yes, it is true love. Yes, we are soul mates.
‘When exactly did this start?’ she asked. ‘When did these “feelings” between you develop?’
‘That doesn’t matter,’ said Will hurriedly.
‘It matters to me!’ Tess’s voice rose.
‘I guess, I’m not sure, maybe about six months ago?’ mumbled Felicity, looking at the table.
‘So when you started to lose weight?’ said Tess.
Tess said to Will, ‘Funny that you never looked twice at her when she was fat.’
The bitter taste of nastiness flooded her mouth. How long since she’d let herself say something so cruel? Not since she was a teenager.
She had never called Felicity fat. Never said a critical word about her weight.
‘Tess, please –’ said Will without any censure in his voice, just a soft, desperate pleading.
‘It’s fine,’ said Felicity. ‘I deserve it. We deserve it.’ She lifted her chin and looked at Tess with naked, brave humility.
So Tess was going to be allowed to kick and scratch as much as she wanted. They were just going to sit there and take it for as long as it took. They weren’t going to fight back. Will and Felicity were fundamentally good. She knew this. They were good people and that’s why they were going to be so nice about this, so understanding and accepting of Tess’s rage, so that in the end Tess would be the bad person, not them. They hadn’t actually slept together, they hadn’t betrayed her. They’d fallen in love! It wasn’t an ordinary grubby little affair. It was fate. Predestined. Nobody could think that badly of them.