Arriving in Albury just after noon, Alana says, “Let’s have lunch first.” Something makes her want to delay going to her parents’ house just yet. The afternoon stretches out before them, and they are not expected until later in the day. There is always the chance, of course, that they run into her parents in town, but she is willing to take the risk. And so they park in town and walk down the street to a coffee shop they both like. This one is playing more appropriate carols – less snow, and less schmaltz – and the room is cool; it is a peaceful place to stop and rest in an otherwise busy town. After lunch they walk to the river and rest for a time in the shade of some trees, but soon it is too hot to be outside and so, with a kind of quiet resignation, they return to their car and drive to Alana’s parents’ house.
Her parents live out of town, in a new house they built there a few years ago. When they arrive, her father is in the garden pruning some trees that have grown dramatically since they were last here.
“Hi Dad,” says Alana, giving him a hug in the driveway. “The garden looks great.”
And for a moment they stand in the driveway, shielding their eyes from the sun, while her father tells her what he has done with the garden, which trees are flourishing, which ones are struggling with the heat. And then her mother appears in the doorway and Alana turns to approach her. The Christmas holiday has begun.
Alana has a memory of being six years old, or thereabouts, and her mother reading a story to her in the living room of their old house. Alana was learning to read herself by then and from time to time she would look over her mother’s shoulder at the words, but she still preferred to have the words read to her, on the rare occasions that that happened. It was comforting to just look at the pictures and trust her mother’s ability to turn those small, mysterious shapes into words to entertain and amuse her. And her mother was a dramatic and expressive reader, far more dramatic than she herself could be just yet.
The story, she remembers, was about some animals – a little tiger and a little bear – and they were best friends, until one of the animals – was it the tiger or the bear? – met a little pig who replaced the other in his affections. And the two of them would spend the whole day lazily in bed, eating “sloppy, gooey uncooked cake” as their staple meal. Alana would always squirm at the thought of eating uncooked cake, although she herself liked to lick the spoon or the beaters when her mother was baking. Somehow eating a whole bowl of cake mixture did not seem the same as licking the spoon, and so Alana would protest at how disgusting the pig and the tiger (or bear) were being, though secretly she loved to be disgusted by them; the disgust was half the appeal.
Only, this time her sister Sarah had walked into the room moments before her mother had reached the part about the cake and had said, Mum, you need to drive me to my dance lesson now, and her mother had said, Oh yes, that’s right, sorry Sarah, and had slammed the book shut. When Alana had asked, But what about the story?, her mother had said, Later. I need to go now. And Sarah had said, Can’t you read it yourself? And Alana had known somewhere in herself that Sarah was right, that she could read for herself, yet all she felt at the time was the injustice of her mother being taken away from her. But Mum never reads to me, she had complained, and her mother had said, Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Alana, and had grabbed the car keys and gone out the door.
Her mother had not finished reading the story that night. In fact, Alana could not remember her reading another story to her. There was always something to do – dancing lessons for Sarah, soccer practice for Simon…And when she herself was old enough to have her own places to go to, her mother drove her there just as she had driven her siblings. But it was never the same as sitting inside her arms while she read. Nothing was ever quite like that. And when she complained about what she was missing, it always sounded like ungrateful whinging and was always dismissed as such, until she started herself to think that she was whinging and there was nothing wrong, only her inability to make things right, her inability to accept the fact that she had grown up and that there were some things she could not expect any more.
Go to Day Twenty-Three