‘Your sister is married to your ex-fiancé?’ Jessica’s voice rose to such a pitch Bett Quinlan half expected the light bulbs to explode. ‘We’ve worked together for nearly two years and you tell me this now?’
Bett knew right then she had made a big mistake. ‘It didn’t ever really come up until now.’
‘Something like that doesn’t need to come up. That’s something you tell people within minutes of meeting. “Hi, my name’s Bett, short for Elizabeth. I work as a journalist in a record company and my sister is married to my ex-husband.”’
‘Ex-fiancé,’ Bett corrected. She tried to backtrack. ‘Look, forget I mentioned it. I’m fine about it. She’s fine about it. He’s fine about it. It’s not a big deal.’ Liar, liar.
‘Of course it’s a big deal. It’s a huge deal. And they’ll both be at your grandmother’s party? No wonder you’re feeling sick about it.’
‘I’m not feeling sick about it. I said I was a bit nervous about going home for it, not sick.’
‘Tomato, tomayto. Oh, Bett, you poor thing. Which sister was it? The older one or the younger one?’
‘The younger one. Carrie.’ Bett felt as if the words were being squeezed out of her.
‘And what happened? Were they having an affair behind your back? You came home from work early one day and caught them at it in your marital – sorry, engagement – bed?’
‘No, it wasn’t like that.’ Bett stood up. She’d definitely made a mistake. That afternoon at work she’d decided to invite her friend and colleague Jessica back for dinner to tell her the whole story. She’d hoped it would help make this trip back to Australia easier. Prepare her for people’s reactions again, like a dress rehearsal. But it wasn’t helping at all. It was excruciating. She ran her fingers through her dark curls, trying to take back control of the situation. ‘Can I get you a coffee? Another glass of wine?’
‘No thanks. Don’t change the subject, either. So did you go to the wedding?’
‘Would you prefer tea?’
Jessica laughed good-naturedly. ‘Come on, Bett. You brought it up in the first place. Think of it as therapy. It can’t have been good for you to go around with a secret like this bottled up inside you. Did you go to the wedding?’
Bett sat down again. ‘I didn’t, no.’
‘Well, no, of course you didn’t. It would have been too humiliating, I suppose.’
She blinked at Jessica’s bluntness.
‘Did your sister use the same wedding invitations? Just cross out your name and put hers instead?’
‘That’s not very funny.’
Jessica gave a sheepish smile. ‘Sorry, couldn’t resist. So who was the bridesmaid? Your older sister? Anna?’
‘No, she wasn’t there either.’
Jessica frowned. ‘None of her sisters were there? What? Did it cause some huge fight between all three of you?’
In a nutshell, yes. ‘It was a bit like that.’
‘Really? You haven’t spoken to either of your sisters since the wedding?’
‘No.’ Bett shifted uncomfortably in her seat. ‘Or seen them.’ Not since the weekend of the Big Fight. Which had followed the Friday of the Revelations. Which had followed the Weeks of the Suspicions. ‘Not for three years.’
‘Your grandmother’s party will be the first time you’ve seen your sisters in three years?’ At Bett’s nod, Jessica gave a long low whistle. ‘This is more complicated than I thought. No wonder you went so weird when that fax from your grandmother arrived.’
‘I didn’t go weird.’
‘Yes, you did. Have you got any photos of your sister and your fiancé together?’
‘Why? Don’t you believe me?’
‘Of course I do. I just need to get the whole picture of it in my head, so I can give you all the advice you need.’
‘I’d rather you didn’t –’
‘Come on, Bett. You know how much I love looking at photos.’
That much was true. Jessica was the only person Bett had ever met who genuinely enjoyed looking at other people’s holiday photos. She wouldn’t just flick through a packet of snaps, either, but would inspect each one, asking about the subject, the setting, the film speed used.
Jessica was being her most persuasive. ‘I’m sure it will help you. This way I’ll know exactly who you’re talking about.’
‘Thanks, anyway, but –’
‘Bett, come on. You’ve told me half of it. I may as well see the rest.’
‘Look, I – ’
‘Please-please-please … ’
Bett gave in, picking up the small photo album lying on top of the bookcase in the corner of the room. At least it would take Jessica only a few minutes to get through them. She had left South Australia in such a hurry three years earlier that she hadn’t taken any of her photos with her. The only ones in her album were ones her parents and Lola had sent with their letters.
As Jessica gleefully started turning the pages, Bett retreated to the tiny kitchen with the dirty dishes, feeling sick and steamrolled. Thirty-two years old and she still hadn’t learned how to stand up for herself. For a fleeting moment she wondered how her sisters would have reacted in the same situation. Anna would have given Jessica a haughty stare and chilled her into silence. Carrie would have tossed her blonde head and told her laughingly and charmingly to mind her own business. But not Bett. No, she’d just felt embarrassed about having said too much and then handed the photo album over anyway. She decided to blame the wine they’d had that night for this sudden need to show and tell all. Nine parts alcohol, one part truth serum.
She came back into the living room and picked up a music magazine, trying to pretend she wasn’t watching Jessica’s every reaction as she pored over each photo. For a while the only sound was pages turning, interrupted by Jessica asking the occasional question.
‘Is that your mum and dad?’
Bett glanced at it. A photo of her parents, arm in arm in front of the main motel building, wearing matching Santa hats, squinting into the sunshine. They’d sent it in their Christmas card the previous year. ‘That’s right.’
Jessica read the sign behind them. ‘The Valley View Motel. Is that where you grew up?’
‘We moved around a lot when we were younger, but that’s where they are now.’
Jessica nodded and turned the page. ‘And this is Lola? The old lady wearing too much makeup?’
Bett didn’t even have to look at the photo. ‘That’s her.’
‘Would you look at those eyebrows! They’re like caterpillars on a trampoline. She was your nanny, did you tell me?’
‘Sort of.’ Nanny always seemed too mild a word to describe Lola. She’d certainly minded them as children. With their parents so occupied running the motels, it was Lola, their father’s mother, who had practically brought up Bett and her two sisters – but she was more a combination of etiquette teacher, boot camp mistress and musical director than nanny.
‘Is she wearing fancy dress in this next photo?’
Bett glanced over. It was a picture of Lola beside her seventy-ninth birthday cake, nearly twelve months earlier. She was wearing a gaudily patterned kaftan, dangling earrings and several beaded necklaces. Nothing too out of the ordinary. ‘No, that’s just her.’
Jessica kept flicking the pages, and then stopped suddenly. Bett tensed, knowing she had reached Carrie and Matthew’s wedding photo. Bett had wanted to throw it away the day she received it, but had stopped herself. She hadn’t wanted her grandmother to be right. It was Lola who had sent the photo to her, enclosing a brief note: ‘You’ll probably get all dramatic and rip this up but I knew you’d want to see it.’
‘This is them?’ Jessica asked.
Jessica studied it closely. ‘Carrie’s very pretty, isn’t she? And he’s a bit of a looker too, your Matthew. Nice perm.’
At least Jessica hadn’t said what people usually said when they remarked on how pretty Carrie was. ‘You don’t look at all alike, do you?’ As for her other remark. ‘He’s not my Matthew. And it wasn’t a perm. He’s got naturally wavy hair.’
Jessica grinned. ‘Just seeing if you defended him.’ She turned the page and gave a loud hoot of laughter. ‘Now we’re talking. I’ve been dying to see proof of the Alphabet Sisters. Look at you with that mad head of curls.’
Bett tugged self-consciously at that same head of curls, now at least slightly less mad. Lola had sent her that photo, too. It had arrived with just a scrawled note, subtle as ever. ‘Remember the good times with your sisters as well.’ It had been taken at a country show in outback South Australia more than twenty years previously, at one of the Alphabet Sisters’ earliest singing performances. Anna had been thirteen, Bett eleven, and Carrie eight. Bett could even remember the songs: “Song Sung Blue”, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and a David Cassidy pop song. Just minutes after the photo had been taken, a fly had buzzed its way straight into Anna’s mouth. Her shocked expression and sudden squawk had made Bett and Carrie laugh so much both of them had fallen off the small stage, a wide plank of wood balanced on eight milk crates. The memory could still make Bett laugh.
Jessica was inspecting it very closely. ‘You were a bit of a porker back then, weren’t you?’
The smile disappeared. ‘Well, that was nicely put, Jess, thanks.’
Jessica was unabashed. ‘I always believe in calling a spade a spade. And you were a plump little thing. Look at that little belly and those rosy-red cheeks.’
Bett didn’t need to look. That little belly and those rosy-red cheeks had never gone too far away. She was about to ask Jessica if she still thought she was a porker – she had gone up and down in weight so many times she hardly knew what size she was – but Jessica was too occupied with the photo. She was taking in every detail, the flicked fringes, the matching dresses, the bad makeup – all Lola’s handiwork.
She glanced up at Bett. ‘Not exactly the Corrs, were you?’
Bett laughed despite herself. ‘I bet they didn’t look that good when they were teenagers either.’
‘I bet they did. Have you ever wondered if there’s a fourth Corr sister, a hideously ugly one they keep locked away?’ Jessica looked at the photo again. ‘You’re not very alike, are you? Even apart from the appalling eye makeup and the different hair colours. Unless they’re wigs?’
‘No, all our own work, I’m afraid.’ Anna had straight black hair, Bett’s was dark brown and Carrie’s dark blonde. She presumed her sisters’ hair colours hadn’t changed in three years. She’d find out soon enough. In less than two weeks in fact. Her stomach gave a lurch.
The fax from Lola in South Australia had arrived at Bett’s work out of the blue, just the one line. If Bett didn’t come home for her eightieth birthday party, she would never talk to her again.
Bett had rung her immediately. ‘Lola, don’t do this to me, please,’ she’d said, straight to the point as soon as her grandmother answered. ‘You know what it’ll be like.’
‘Elizabeth Quinlan, stop being such a baby. You’re scared of seeing your sisters. So what? I’m nearly eighty and I’ve got a lot more to be scared of than you have. I could die any moment. Now, hang up, book your ticket and get here as soon as you can. I’ve got something I want you to do.’
Lola had obviously taken her extra-strength bossy tablets that day. ‘I can’t drop everything just like that, Lola. I’ve got a life here now.’
‘And you’ve got a grandmother in Australia who has missed you very, very badly and wants to see you again.’ Her voice had softened. ‘Please, Bett. Come home. For me.’
Bett had thought about it for two days, veering between excitement and dread at the idea. One image had kept coming to her. Lola, standing in front of the motel, beaming at her, waiting to give her a hug. In the end Bett had compromised. Yes, she would come back for the party, but it would be a lightning trip. She’d arrive in South Australia the day of the party and then leave as soon as possible afterwards.
Lola hadn’t been at all pleased. ‘But I need you here for longer than that.’
‘I can’t, Lola. I’ve got a life here,’ she’d repeated firmly. It had been a strange sensation. She wasn’t used to standing up to her grandmother either.
Beside her, Jessica was going through the album again. ‘It’s a tricky one, that’s for sure. No wonder you’re so nervous. Your first meeting with your sisters and the happy couple in three years, all of you in the same motel, not to mention the added tension of a party …’
Bett nodded, waiting for her friend’s sound advice, the helpful comments.
Jessica shut the album with a snap. ‘I’d say it’s going to be ferocious.’