He leaves her when the baby is three months old.

He leaves her for the nineteen-year-old at the post office. Apparently she appreciates his genius.

She stays at home, her breasts painfully swollen with milk, coaxing the baby to latch on, grateful that at least she has a roof over her head. She'd paid off most of the mortgage with the money her father left her. That was three years ago, before his cancer came back with a vengeance. She has no family left now, no one to turn to for support.

Then two bailiff men come to the door. She calls the bank and they tell her that her husband had redrawn the mortgage almost as soon as she'd paid it off.

'But it doesn't make sense,' she says, feeling as though all the air is sucked out of the room. 'When did he do it? He needed more money for his soft plastics recycling business, something about cashflow... but why wasn't I told?'

The bank manager is sympathetic but shows her copies of the letters sent to their home over the last year. He hadn't been making repayments. She'd had no idea.

The market hasn't recovered; the house is worth less than what is owed to the bank. She and the baby are shunted from emergency accommodation to emergency accommodation until she is finally given a council flat. The ceiling is green with mildew. The place stinks of cigarettes and something worse, acrid and sour, that seems to be baked into the walls.

She sleeps on a thin mattress on the floor. She changes the baby on the kitchen counter and when she turns to get the baby powder he almost rolls off. She grabs him by one stubby leg and for a moment he dangles off the counter, yowling. She makes sure she hadn't dislocated the leg and then pushes her face into his naked little chest, his tender baby skin absorbing her scream.


He doesn't show for the divorce proceedings. She is awarded sole custody, and he is ordered to pay child support.

She knows she'll never see a cent. His soft plastics business has gone under, and the girl at the post office has left him. Last she heard, he had gone surfing in Bali.

Her two-year-old fusses and she play-bites his bright apple cheek. He giggles.

'I could eat you up,' she coos. 'I could eat you up whole.'


He'd sent the occasional toy over the years. A Tamagochi. A stamp collection. Postmarks vary: Bali, Tokyo, Amsterdam. Each time she opens the parcel, looks at what's inside, then goes to the local Cash Converter to see if it's worth anything. The washer's broken again and her job at the local IGA doesn't stretch, so she ends up having to do the washing by hand in the bathtub.

Her eight-year-old reaches out to touch the colourful stamps. She smacks his hand away, harder than she intended. His eyes fill with tears.

She says sorry over and over again, gathers him to her chest. 'We don't want anything from him, okay?'

He hiccups his assent against her chest, and goes to play with his friend on the communal playground where she can keep an eye on them through the soot-stained windows. The kid's parents are probably out of their heads in their flat three doors down.

There's a place up for rent two neighbourhoods over, not a council flat, with a better public school within walking distance. She can't save up for the rental deposit fast enough.

She sells the stamp collection for $40 and tucks the notes into her bedside drawer. She doesn't trust banks these days.


He shows up unannounced. He'd asked friends of friends and managed to track her down. 'I have a right to see my son,' he demands.

His T-shirt is threadbare and his big toe pokes out of his left sneaker. There is grey at his temples. She'd heard about the mineral water bottling plant he'd bought on the cheap from some guy desperate to sell. Turned out he was desperate to sell for a reason.

'He doesn't want to see you,' she tells him.

And from the other room, the thirteen-year-old issues a shout that cracks halfway through, like an out-of-tune accordion. 'I don't have a dad!'

Her heart lifts at the sight of his dejected shuffle as he disappears off the end of her driveway.


'You're exactly like your old man,' she rages. 'Useless, no sense of responsibility...'

'Yeah, well, you're a bitch!' her son yells back.

Hours later he is in her room, kneeling by the side of her bed. She clutches handfuls of his T-shirt, her tears soaking into the top of his head. She remembers that powdery baby shampoo smell.

'I didn't mean it, mum,' he says. 'I didn't mean to say these things.'

'I know,' she says, her toes digging into the shag carpet.


'Cara's pregnant,' her son announces. 'I'm gonna propose.'

He has a grand plan. He'll get promoted at the mechanic where he's apprenticing. Cara will go back to work after six months.

'Daycare's expensive,' she tells him.

'We'll make it work,' he says.


She's babysitting at her son's place. The couch is covered with the children's detritus. The twins, Gracie and Bo, run around her ankles screaming.

Patrick, the nine-year-old, is glued to his iPad. 'Do you ever go outside?' she asks him. 'When your dad was your age he played soccer in the park until it got dark. I had to leave dinner warming in the oven and drag him home.'

The kid grunts and doesn't look up. The kitchen lightbulb flickers then goes out. Cara calls for the man of the house to replace it. 'I'm on the phone!' comes the shouted reply from the garage.

Cara climbs onto the kitchen counter to change the lightbulb, but it still doesn't go. 'It's the wiring,' Cara says wearily. 'This damn house.'

'How's the deposit looking?' she asks, wishing she could contribute more. But her government super is barely enough for her to put food on the table as it is.

'Have you seen the house prices lately? The more we save, the more the goalposts move.' Cara's face is drawn and puckered. It's like looking into a mirror on herself twenty years ago.

Her son enters from the garage, phone in hand. 'Who was that?' Cara asks.

'No one,' he says, with a flickering look in his mother's direction. 'Wrong number.'

A few days later she's over at theirs again, babysitting while Cara pulls the day shift. When her son comes home he stinks of sweat and hot metal. 'How do they pay you these days?' she asks.

'Not enough.' He opens the kitchen cabinet then shuts it again. He is facing away from her when he says casually. 'Have you heard about the old man?'

She has. Their mutual acquaintances were far too eager to tell. After four, five failed ventures, it seems like one has finally stuck.

'Sounds like he's doing well for himself,' he says.

'Did he get in touch?' she asks, suddenly alert.

'Nah,' he says, still turned away from her.


She walks briskly through the shopping centre, laden with bags of groceries.

She'd put last night's roast chicken carcass on the slow boil with some carrots, celery, half an onion and bay leaves. It's only been a half hour but she always has a fear of returning to the house having burnt down. She still remembers what it felt like to be out on the street, turning in slow, helpless circles, her son clinging to her like a baby koala.

Now she hears his voice and she turns again in circles, triangulating. She sees him sitting inside a nearby café, one of those trendy ones the kids like. She walks closer, ready to tap him on the shoulder and remind him, oh so gently, that the $20 avocado toast can be recreated at home for less than one-fifth of the price.

He is sitting at a small table for two. An older man is with him, stirring sugar into his coffee. Her son is animated, gesticulating wildly, his face suffused with energy.

For a moment she doesn't recognise the older man. And then she does.

When she gets home she stirs the stock in the pot, tastes it, and turns off the heat. Using a fine mesh sieve she carefully drains the stock, making sure not to spill.

When all the liquid is poured out she stares at the sieve in her hand, full of boiled chicken carcass and little bits of carrots, onion and celery.

She'd carefully poured all the stock right down the sink.


She walks around the open home, her soft shoes scuffing on the polished wood floor.

'Marble benchtops, new dishwasher,' says the estate agent, his hands sketching patterns in the air. 'Just look at the light coming through here.'

Afternoon sunlight coats the living room with buttery yellow. The staged couch is pink and plump as a marshmallow.

Her son comes to stand next to her. 'Well?'

'It's beautiful,' she says.

'Yeah. Cara loves it. Great neighbourhood too.'

'But how can you afford...'

'Mum. I need to tell you something.'

She knows but she waits for him to say it.

He speaks. He waits. When she doesn't say anything he begins fidgeting. 'It's not even a loan. It's... he's giving us the deposit. It's beyond generous. You know we can't... we'd never afford it otherwise...'

She walks over to admire the curtains. 'Back when you were little and we lived in the council flat, the curtains were plastic. Do you remember? Like shower curtains.'

'He's doing really well now. He wants to make it up to me, all that time he wasn't here. He...'

She runs her finger over the marble kitchen countertop, the cool stainless metal. 'And we had just that tiny itsy-bitsy kitchenette. There wasn't even a proper stove. I had to cook everything on a hotplate.'

'He's met the kids, and Cara...'

She spins to face him. 'He's met my grandchildren?'

His face sets. 'They're his grandkids too.'

She slings her purse over her shoulder and walks out of the house, past the estate agent's hasty white grin and down the garden path. Her son calls out behind her and she doesn't look back.

She walks to her car, gets in and turns on the ignition. She waits. But he doesn't come knocking on her window.

She strains her neck and looks back. He is standing on the veranda, talking to the estate agent. Signing something. His spine is straight, his shoulders thrown back. He laughs at something the agent says.

She waits another two minutes and when he doesn't come she has no choice but to drive away.


'Dad's coming over for Christmas.' Her son's voice is tinny over the phone. 'Cara's making a massive turkey, all the trimmings. It's our first Christmas at the new house.'

'I'm not going if he's there.'

A pause and then a sigh. 'He paid for the house, mum, I can't...'

She hangs up. The phone rings again and she lets it ring out. She stares at it expectantly, but it doesn't ring again.

She remembers a quote from school Shakespeare, has to Google it, and then sends him a WhatsApp. How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child.

She watches the two little grey ticks turn blue. He is typing. Stops. Typing again.

She waits, but he stops typing and no message comes.

On Christmas Day she makes a ham, roast chicken, pigs in blankets. She tells herself they might not show up at all, but she thinks, surely there is time in the afternoon, just to bring presents, just for the kids to say Merry Christmas.

Her phone rings and she picks up on the third ring. Cara's got the kids, screaming Merry Christmas down the line. 'Why aren't you here?' asks little Gracie, who is quickly shushed by her mother.

'Put him on,' she instructs Cara. 'I want to hear his bastard voice.'

Cara pauses and then asks delicately whether she means father or son. In the background Patrick yells, 'Grandpa got me a Playstation!'

He sounds exactly like his father at that age. She stands transported. The flowery linoleum of the council house. The plastic curtains. The mildew on the ceiling.

'Merry Christmas,' she says to Cara and hangs up.

She eats a little of her feast and freezes the rest. She sits in her quiet flat, looking up at the ceiling, searching for signs of mildew.

The end

Photo by Bethany Beck on Unsplash