(This is the end of chapter 1. Parts 1 and 2 are in the previous two posts. I'm actually up to Chapter 6 now and have just hit 15,000 words, which I am amazed about. Hope it continues!)
Phil pushed open the door, the blue chipped tea tray balancing on her hip as she held Vicky’s chocolate-coated paw with the other hand. “Apple juice, Frankie,” she said breathlessly, “and cookies. Anzacs, I think. I brought two each.” She stopped talking and looked curiously at Penny. “Do you need anything else?”
“No, thanks, Phil,” I said “we’re good.” I moved over to my desk and put a dash in a column on my desk pad. Phil nodded happily and backed out, her flyaway strawberry blonde hair escaping her plait, tugging the reluctant Vicky with her.
“What was that you noted down?” asked Penny curiously, taking a swallow of her juice. She was much more relaxed now, I noted; maybe she was almost ready to tell me why she was here.
“Oh, that?” I said. “That’s Phil’s pay tally. I give her 25 cents every time she brings drinks for me and my friends. Or clients. It’s kind of a family affair,” I went on, “this ... you know. My brother Seb helps out sometimes, too.”
“But not Vicky?” smiled Penny, biting into her cookie. Like all my Mum’s baked goods, it was delicious.
“Not yet,” I agreed, “but she’ll be running it all one day, I’m sure.” I finished off my first cookie and brushed the crumbs off my lap. Time to get down to it; it wouldn’t be long before I’d be called inside to help with the dinner. “So, Penny...?”
She took a breath, and said, “So, Frankie, I want to know how much it would cost for you to find out for me why my Mum left when I was a baby and never came back.” She bit into her cookie again and leaned back, clearly relieved to have finally got it out.
I wasn’t expecting that.
Clearly I wasn’t, because I blurted out the first stupid thing that came into my head, which was, “But Penny, what are you talking about? I know your Mum! She’s there every day at school to pick you up! You know, blonde lady, very trendy...” I trailed off as Penny regarded me with laughter-filled eyes. She was enjoying this now that she’d gotten over the first hurdle of actually spilling it out. People often do, I’ve found.
“Yes, my STEPmother does come up to get me and Charlie,” Penny agreed, “mostly because Charlie’s only 6 and still quite clingy. I call her Mum, because she married my Dad when I was three, and really, Yvonne is wonderful, I do love her lots. Not at all an evil stepmother,” she continued, slurping some juice. (Slurping! Penny Ganz, slurping! I am clearly a bad influence).
“My birth mother, though ... she left us, when I was 7 months old. At least, that’s what my Dad has always told me. He says there just wasn’t a reason, she was unhappy so she left.” Penny sighed, serious again.
“I just don’t ... Even if she was unhappy, didn’t like being a mother, wouldn’t she have contacted me later? Or tried to? Did she really not care at all about me, about how I was doing?” The hurt in Penny’s voice was painful to hear. Without thinking, I reached out my hand to her. She took my hand and squeezed it tight for a moment, and we sat in silence. I think I might have cried, had the mood not been broken by Vicky, who burst in the door, covered in yellow paint, and flung herself on me.
“FENKY!” shrieked Vicky, winding her chubby arms around my neck. “VICKY NO WAN’ BARF!”
I untangled her arms and regarded her sternly as Phil, her face flushed, appeared at the doorway. “Oh, Vicky,” said Phil in her soft, gentle voice. (Phil is so-not-me in that regard). “You need to have a bath. Mum’s run it, it’s all ready,” she appealed to me, her soft hazel eyes worried. “She just won’t come.”
I put my littlest sister off my knee and spoke directly to her. “Vicky,” I said, in my Almost As Good As Mum’s No Nonsense Voice. “You. Need. A. Bath. NOW. If you go with Phil like a good girl, I will come up in 5 minutes and blow bubbles for you, OK?”
Vicky grinned, her green eyes alight with triumph. (They always are. Vicky always wins).
“Oh-TAY, Fenky!” she agreed, and charged out the door towards the house, Phil following in her wake.
Penny, who had watched this scene with amusement, was fully in possession of herself now. In a normal voice, she said, “Well, Frankie, what do you think? Could you do anything?”
I thought. It was eleven years ago, and it involved adults, whose motivations, frankly, are always strange and often impossible to work out. All the same, I thought there might be one or two things I could do.
“Penny,” I said, “I’ll be honest. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to find out much for you. How about if we agree that I’ll try for a week. You can pay me back for anything I have to pay for, plus $20. If after a week we agree to keep going, we’ll talk then about more fees.”
Penny considered. “That sounds fair,” she agreed, as she got up to go. At the door, she turned, put her hand on my arm, and said “Thank you, Frankie.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” I advised, feeling a warm glow nonetheless. She really was nice.
And then she was gone, and I headed up to the house. I had bubbles to blow, after all.