Families can be great at acting like everything’s ok, burying their hurt and painting on a happy face. But when the façade starts to crack, boy does it crack.
If you wanted to eat out in Barunga, there wasn’t much choice. If you were after café food or simple hot meals, Old Joe’s was the place to go. Apart from a couple takeaways, the only other real option was the Kookaburra restaurant. It was a little nicer and served a decent variety of cuisine. The O’Connell men stood on the street outside Kookaburra, waiting for the last one in their set to arrive. At Sam’s insistence they had all dressed smartly in shirts and chinos. It was a special occasion for the family and he wanted their appearance to reflect it.
‘This feels wrong, meeting Karla here. We should all have come together,’ Connor complained, tapping his shoe impatiently, fists stuck into pockets.
‘Karla doesn’t live with us Connor. It made sense for her to meet us here,’ Sam replied with a hint of exasperation. Connor’s mood hadn’t improved much after his brothers’ pep talk the previous afternoon and his fixed stormy expression was beginning to grate on Sam.
Connor either didn’t pick up on the tone or chose to ignore it. He continued his protest. ‘Why? We’re her family, not them. She should be living with us.’
‘Connor, please,’ Sam groaned, his voice sounding more worn out than angry. ‘Not tonight. I know you want her back with us- we all do- but she’s doing what she feels is right for her at the moment and we all need to respect that. Now, I’m asking you, can we please just enjoy spending time as a family tonight without any arguments or bitterness? Do you reckon you can manage that?’
Connor huffed, but relaxed a little. He wasn’t used to being the child rebuked and normally crumbled under his father’s authority fairly quickly. ‘Yes, ok. I’ll try.’
Boyd tapped his younger brother on his linen-clad shoulder and pointed down the road. ‘You’d better start looking like you mean that, because she’s here.’
Karla jogged towards them in a flowing, pale yellow, sleeveless shirt, smart black denim skirt, and a pair of tatty grey sand shoes. ‘Sorrrry!’ she called. She stopped next to them, panting. ‘I was hanging out with Ali and I lost track of time.’
‘Doesn’t matter, you’re here now.’ Boyd put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed.
Sam raised an eyebrow at her shoes and Karla noticed the glance. ‘Yeah, alright, it’s all I had. All my smart shoes are in the shipment.’
‘And you’re actually wearing a skirt!’ JC marvelled in mockery.
‘Well I’d have worn shorts, but dad said we had to dress up smart. And I’d have worn jeans, but it’s a million degrees outside!’ Karla half-yelled. The skirt had twisted a little in her jog and she tugged at it uncomfortably to return it to its place. ‘Now can we please stop judging my outfit?’
‘Suits me fine,’ Boyd agreed. ‘Now what do you say we all go eeeat? I’m starving.’
‘When are you not?’ JC teased.
Karla laughed. ‘I’m glad to see nothing’s changed!’
In the Zeller kitchen, all was quiet. Jordan sat sewing another cotton badge onto her tattered old olive messenger bag. But the quiet never seemed to last for very long.
And cue Jay.
Jordan glanced up at the sound of his footsteps, put down her sewing, and grinned, relishing the teasing she was about to inflict. ‘Look who’s home! How was your date, Casanova?’
Jay banged the glass he had just pulled from the cupboard down on the granite worktop and turned to his sister in irritation. ‘How many times do I have to tell you Jordan? It was not a date. Natasha and I are just friends.’
‘Did you kiss her?’
‘Why would I kiss her?’
‘Because you loooove her!’ she replied, making no attempts to act her age and thoroughly enjoying every second of it.
‘Seriously Jordan, why do you keep going on about this? I’m getting really tired of it. You have plenty of guy friends and you don’t hear me teasing you about them.’
Riley had walked in from the Joe’s in the middle of Jay’s tirade, heading straight for the kettle. He homed in on the tea jar and dropped a bag into a mug. ‘He’s got a point, Jo.’
Jordan began to feel a bit guilty but rather than apologising, she went on the defensive. ‘Oh, you don’t tease me? What about Henry?’
Jay scoffed. ‘Oh come on, you were all over him at the New Years party!’
‘I was not!’
‘Yes you were. Ri, help me out here.’
Riley waved the white flag, holding his hands in the air. ‘Nah man, I’m staying out of this.’ The kettle clicked and he poured the steaming water into the mug.
‘Coward!’ Jordan berated.
‘Maybe. But I’m a coward who’d going to live to see another day,’ Riley replied. He took his mug, teaspoon still sticking out the top, and walked to the door.
‘We’ll see!’ his twin sister called after him.
Things were no more civilised in the Kookaburra restaurant. Karla and Boyd were in the midst of a spaghetti-eating race, must to the disgust of their father.
‘Guys, not in here, please. Anyone would think you were brought up by pigs. Eat properly.’
Karla and Boyd reluctantly obeyed, dropping the forkfuls of food back in the bowl and chewing properly what remained in their mouths. Boyd sucked a dangling piece of spaghetti past his lips and wiped his greasy mouth with the back of his hand. Sam shook his head.
‘Dad’s just saving you the embarrassment of losing,’ Boyd jibed at his little sister.
‘I’m saving us all the embarrassment of getting thrown out,’ Sam corrected. ‘Honestly, I can’t take you guys anywhere.’
JC coughed in mock-disgust. ‘Excuse us! Connor and I are behaving like perfect gentlemen.’
‘Tonight maybe. Who knows what the future will hold?’
‘I refute that!’ Connor said defiantly.
‘Refute it all you want son, doesn’t change my constant nightmares.’
Karla and Boyd finish the last strands on their plates and wiped their mouths, with napkins this time at least. They sit back in satisfaction as Karla let out a contented sigh.
After a short pause, Boyd sat forward and upright, hands on his stomach. ‘Right, what’s for dessert?’
‘Are you serious?’ Karla laughed. ‘How you can you still be hungry? I’m so full I don’t think I could eat for the rest of the week.’ She thought about her claim again. ‘Well, maybe until lunch tomorrow.’
‘Lightweight,’ Boyd tutted.
JC looked at his brother with a mixture of amusement and revulsion. ‘Boyd, does food actually stay in your body or does it fall out? Because I swear you can eat twice the amount the rest of us can and still claim to be hungry.’
Pride beamed across Boyd’s angular face. ‘What can I say? It’s a gift.’
‘No, it’s a genetic anomaly,’ Connor countered. ‘And I’m out for dessert too.’
‘Lightweights, the lot of you. Dad?’
‘Sorry son, I’m with the others. Two courses of generous portions does it for me. Plus, I don’t want to be clearing up your puke on the way home.’ Sam motioned to a nearby waitress to bring him the bill.
‘No, that’s Karla’s job; she’s the woman,’ Boyd commented, a twinkle of mischief in his blue eye.
Karla punched him hard on the arm. ‘That’s just a taste of the level of pain you’ll get if you say anything like that again,’ she threatened.
‘Boyd, you lived with four women for five years. You should know better than to make sexist jokes by now,’ JC remarked.
Connor grinned as he recounted a memory and a chance to humiliate his brother. ‘Oh, he does. The first time Boyd made a sexist comment, Lily, Emma, and Holly all crowded round him, backed him up until he fell into the sofa, then smacked him hard around the back of the head. Then they leaned in real close and said, “If we ever hear you make a comment like that again, your life will not be worth living”. I swear he nearly peed himself. And you can be sure he never made a joke like that in front of them again.’
‘And so he shouldn’t,’ Karla nodded as the waitress handed Sam the bill. He counted out the cash and placed it on the dish, along with a tip.
‘Ok you lot, let’s make a move,’ he directed, standing up.
Once outside the restaurant, Karla gave her dad a side-hug. ‘Thanks for dinner dad.’
‘You’re welcome KJ. It was nice to have some family time,’ he replied, squeezing her shoulders.
‘And now we can have as much of it as we want.’
‘Joy,’ JC quipped, complete with eye roll. The cheeky glint in his eye gave the sarcasm away, but his little sister still gave him a light push.
‘Shut up. You know you’re glad to have me back.’
JC put his long arms around her from behind and rested his chin on her head. Karla was above average height, but her oldest brother still stood a head taller than her. ‘You know I am.’
Sam had had his fill of emotion and called an end to the night. ‘Right Karla, time you got home. The boys will walk you back.’
Karla cocked her head and folded her arms across her chest. ‘I’m sixteen, Dad.’
‘Exactly; you’re only sixteen, and it’s late. I will not have my teenage daughter wandering the streets on her own at this time.’
‘It’s like a twenty-minute walk, I’ll be fine,’ she complained.
JC put his hands on her shoulders in the commanding way he always did when he wanted Karla to do what he said. ‘Dad’s right. Come on.’
‘I’ll come too,’ Boyd said.
Karla knew she wasn’t going to win this one and huffed. ‘Fine. Night then.’ She gave Sam and Connor a final hug goodbye and set off down the street, flanked by the boys.
The remaining duo crossed the street and walked along the road straight ahead. As soon as the others were out of earshot, the smile Connor had managed to conjure up for the evening dropped off his face and was replaced by the storm. ‘This is wrong.’
Sam had been ecstatic after the evening with his children, but all he felt now was dread as he prepared for the onslaught. ‘Connor-’
His youngest biological son stopped walking and stood in front of Sam. ‘No, alright? I kept quiet about this the whole evening, for you. I pushed aside my feelings and actually had a good time. But JC and Boyd walking her home to someone else’s house like she’s just some random friend? I’m not keeping quiet anymore. She should be coming home with us- with her family– back where she belongs.’
‘Connor, I am not having this discussion with you again,’ his father replied firmly. He side-stepped his son, but only got a couple of paces away before his son exploded.
‘Well maybe that’s the problem!’ he shouted. Sam stopped walking, but refused to turn around. ‘You let her do whatever the heck she wants and you never say anything about it because you’re scared her precious feelings will get hurt and she’ll stay away forever.’
At that, Sam turned around and stared at his son, his face giving nothing away. But Connor, undeterred, took an angry step toward a man who had caused harder men than he to shrink back in terror with nothing but a look. ‘Maybe it’s time you grew a pair and started behaving like her parent rather than letting her acting like such a child!’
Sam silently closed the gap between them, glaring down on Connor’s smaller frame, close enough for Connor to feel the breath from Sam’s nostrils on his forehead. ‘Her?’ Sam began. His face remained blank, but his steady and quiet tone conveyed all the fury Connor sensed was held behind the mask. ‘You are the one who’s acting like a child. You want me to be the parent? Fine. I am the one who calls the shots in this family, not you. If you don’t like the way I run things in my house, you can pack your bags and move out. Otherwise, you suck it up and do what you’re told.
‘And boy, if you ever speak to me like that again, I will ground you for so long you’ll be wearing dentures before you get out. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes Sir,’ Connor replied. He was too angry to back away from his father, but he wasn’t stupid enough to test his patience any further.
‘Good.’ Sam took a step back and looked his son up and down in disdain. ‘Now get moving. I don’t want to hear another word from you the rest of the night.’ Sam roughly grabbed Connor’s arm and shoved him forwards. He began walking in silence, with Sam following a few paces behind.