Excerpt – Those Faraday Girls

Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

1979

The day the Faraday family started to fall apart began normally enough.

Juliet, at twenty-three the oldest of the five Faraday sisters, was first into the kitchen, cooking breakfast for everyone as she liked to do. This morning it was scrambled eggs, served with small triangles of buttered toast. She added parsley, diced crispy bacon and a dash of cream to the eggs, with a sprinkle of paprika as a garnish. She also set the table with silver cutlery, white napkins, a small crystal vase with a late-blooming red rose from the bush by the front gate and a damp copy of the Mercury which had been thrown over the fence before dawn. The big earthenware teapot that had once belonged to their grandmother had centre place on the table, resting on a Huon pine pot holder that sent out a warm timber smell as it heated up.

Juliet stepped back from the table, pleased with the general effect. She’d been asked by her new boss at the city centre café where she worked to come up with ideas for menu items. She made a record of this morning’s arrangement in her notebook under the title ‘English-style Traditional Breakfast???’ A smoked kipper or two would have been a nice touch, but they were hard to come by in Hobart. Too smelly, anyway, if her childhood memory served her well.

Twenty-one year old Miranda was next up and into the kitchen. She was already fully made-up – black eyeliner, false lashes and very red lipstick – and dressed in her white pharmacy assistant’s uniform. She looked around the room.

‘Juliet, you really are wasted with us. You’d make some lucky family a lovely maid.’

She absentmindedly pulled in her belt as she spoke. Two months earlier, a visiting perfume sales representative had flattered her by mentioning her slender waist. She’d been working vigorously to get it as thin as possible ever since. She worked in the local chemist, publicly expressing an interest in studying pharmacy, privately thrilled with the access to discount and sample cosmetics.

Juliet was also dressed for work, in a black skirt and white shirt, with a red dressing-gown on top for warmth. She ignored Miranda’s remark. ‘English-style traditional breakfast, madam?’ she asked.

‘I’d rather skin a cat,’ Miranda answered absently, reaching for the newspaper.

Eliza, sister number three and nineteen years old, came in next, dressed in running gear. She did a four kilometre run every morning before she went to university. ‘That’s not how you use that phrase, is it?’

‘It is now. I’d rather skin a cat within an inch of my hen’s teeth than put my eggs in Juliet’s basket.’

Juliet looked pointedly at Eliza. ‘Would you like an English-style traditional breakfast, madam? Toast? Coffee or tea?’

‘I’d love everything, thanks. And tea, please. I’ve got a big day today.’ Eliza was studying physical education at university. During the week she coached two junior netball teams. On weekends she ran in cross-country competitions. The only time any of her family saw her out of tracksuits was if she went to church on Sundays, and she rarely did that any more. She took up her usual seat at the wooden table. ‘Why do you put yourself through this every morning, Juliet?’

‘Practice. Research purposes. A strongly developed sense of familial responsibility. It’s all good training for when I have my own café.’

‘Really?’ Miranda said. ‘So if you were training to be an undertaker you’d embalm us each morning?’ She was now eating a grapefruit and ignored a yelp from Eliza as her jabbing spoon sent a dart of juice across the table.

‘If you get any funnier, Miranda, I’m going to explode laughing.’ Juliet put Eliza’s toast on and stood by the window. She pulled her dressing-gown tighter around her body as a sharp breeze came in through a gap in the frame.

It was autumn in Hobart, getting colder each day. Their weatherboard house was heated by open fires in the living room and the kitchen, though they were never lit in the morning. Wood was too expensive. This morning was bright and crisp, at least, the sun strong enough to send gentle light through the red and orange leaves in the front hedge. A scattering of frost lay on the ground. There’d been warnings already that the winter would be a cold one. Possibly even snow, and not just on top of Mount Wellington.

Juliet touched the windowpane as she refilled the kettle. It was icy cold. TheirNorth Hobart house was in the dip of a hilly street, but high enough to give them a view of the mountain, though the trees their father had planted years ago were now threatening to block it. If she stood on tiptoes, Juliet could see the glisten of frost on cars in the street and on the hedges of the houses opposite. She gave a fake little shiver. She liked telling her friends that this weather was nothing like the cold she remembered from her childhood inEngland. Not that her memories were all that strong any more. Like their English accents, those memories had nearly faded away.

The whole Faraday family had emigrated to Tasmania twelve years earlier. The girls’ father, Leo, a botanist specialising in eucalypt plantations, had been headhunted by a Tasmanian forestry company. Juliet could still remember the excitement of packing everything up in preparation for the month-long sea journey from Southampton. None of them had even heard of Tasmaniabefore then.

The toast popped. Juliet prepared Eliza’s breakfast and passed it across. She refilled the teapot for the others. Sadie and Clementine’s cups were already on the table. Juliet took down her father’s cup and saucer from the shelf. It was a delicate blue colour, with a border of cheerful red blossom. Their mother had always had her morning tea in that cup. Juliet could remember her sipping it, closing her eyes and saying, ‘Ah, that hits the spot.’ Only Leo used her cup these days.

The kitchen door was pushed open with a bang. ‘Bloody hell, Juliet. Look at the time.’ Sadie was still dressing herself as she walked in, her head emerging from an orange and red striped poncho. Her hair, last night the model of current fashion with its teased perm, looked like a flattened haystack this morning. None of her sisters remarked on it. She threw her canvas bag and a pair of cork-heeled boots into the corner of the room with a clatter, then slumped into a chair. Sadie woke up grumpy every morning. ‘Why didn’t you wake me? I told you I have an early lecture.’

‘You didn’t ask me to wake you. Do you want some breakfast?’

‘What is it?’

‘Cat sick on toast if you keep talking to me like that.’

‘Sorry, Juliet. I’d love some of your beautiful cuisine. Thank you for getting up early to prepare it for me.’ Eighteen years old, Sadie was in her first year of an arts degree. One month earlier she’d been in her first year of a science degree. She’d also completed one semester of a law degree, before changing her mind about that as well. ‘Such a shame there’s not a degree in dillydallying,’ Miranda had remarked. ‘You’d top the class in that.’

‘Where’s Leo?’ Eliza asked, bringing her teacup over for a top-up.

‘Shed Land. He’s been there all morning.’ Juliet had been up at seven and the light in the garden shed their father used as his inventing room was already shining. He was spending more time in there these days than out looking after his tree plantations. She decided to give him another ten minutes before checking on him.

Miranda pushed the newspaper away and gave a graceful stretch. Her glossy dark-red hair shimmered down her back as she flexed her arms above her head. ‘If you ask me, we’re being replaced in his affections by test tubes and soldering irons. Juliet, call the authorities when you’ve finished washing the dishes, will you? If it isn’t bad enough that we’re motherless, we’re now heading towards fatherlessness.’

‘You said you preferred it when he’s busy out there.’

‘Busy out there is one thing. Abandoning his daughters for days on end is another.’

Juliet secretly preferred it when Leo was in one of his inventing frenzies. Life was much quieter. He didn’t care whether each of them had done their share of the housework, or express dismay about Miranda’s too-short skirts, tell Sadie off for playing her music too loudly, remind Eliza to mow the front lawn, tell Juliet to find more uses for mince or tell Clementine to get over her hatred of mince. He hadn’t even noticed when Juliet served roast chicken midweek, instead of as a rare Sunday luxury. She’d done it as a test.

If things weren’t going well in Shed Land, it was like having a bee in the house. He was always around, offering help that wasn’t needed and getting in the way. A real sign of his frustration was when he shut the tin door of the shed loudly enough for them to hear over their pop music, strode into the kitchen, turned off the stove or the grill and declared that he was feeling housebound and was going to take the five of them out for dinner somewhere. They usually ended up at Bellerive beach, eating fish and chips at one of the wooden tables by the water. Money was always too tight for restaurants.

‘Morning, everyone.’ It was Clementine, still in her pyjamas, her school blazer over the top, her long, dark hair tied back into a ponytail.

Four voices answered in a sing-song way. ‘Morning, Clementine.’

Clementine had barely taken her seat when she stood up again, pushed back her chair and made a dash for the bathroom down the hallway. Eliza and Juliet looked at each other. Miranda kept reading. Sadie began to look ill herself.

Clementine came back, whitefaced, clutching a facecloth. ‘Sorry about that.’

Juliet looked closely at her little sister. Clementine was always pale – all five of them were – so that was nothing new, but she did look especially peaky this morning. ‘Were you sick?’

Clementine nodded.

Juliet guided her gently into a chair and rested a hand on her forehead. She could remember sitting in that same chair and having their mother do the same thing to her. It had felt so cool and comforting. It had always made her feel a little better, straight away. ‘You don’t have a temperature, Clemmie. It must just be a bug.’

‘Poor Clemmie,’ Miranda said. As Sadie leaned past her to the sugar bowl, she made an exaggerated face, flapping her hands in front of her nose. ‘Breathing in Sadie’s alcoholic fumes would give anyone a bug. What time did you get in last night, Sadie? I really don’t think you are taking your studies seriously, young lady.’

‘You’re just jealous because I have a good social life and you don’t,’ Sadie said, putting three spoons of sugar into her tea.

‘I have an extraordinary social life. It’s just I also have an extraordinary working life, unlike you two layabouts. Thank God I decided against going to university. Look what it’s doing to the two of you. Turning you into hippies in front of our eyes.’

‘I’m not a hippy,’ Sadie said.

‘What’s wrong with being a hippy anyway?’ Eliza asked.

‘Nothing’s wrong with being a hippy in the same way that nothing’s wrong with being a smelly old dog lying around in front of a fire. It’s just not what I want to be.’

‘You think you are so perfect, Miranda,’ Sadie said. ‘You’re not. You’re so superficial. All you care about is make-up and clothes —’

‘And perfume,’ Miranda said. ‘Don’t forget perfume. And I’m reasonably interested in magazines, fake compliments and men buying me drinks.’

Juliet stepped in. ‘Do you want to try some toast now, Clemmie?’

‘No, thanks. I’ll skip breakfast.’

‘You’re not on a diet again, are you, Clementine?’ Miranda said. ‘The pressures of impending fame getting to you?’

She managed a smile. ‘Something like that.’

‘Everything okay with the play?’ Juliet asked. Clementine had been out late each night that week doing final rehearsals for her school play, on top of all the weekend run-throughs. She had a walk-on role as a pirate and a credit in the program as assistant set designer. Juliet had been very pleased to hear it. Clementine was usually more scientific than artistic and not usually this enthusiastic about after-school activities. Juliet had discovered the real reason two weeks earlier, when she spotted Clementine and David Simpson, the boy playing the lead role in the play, holding hands as they walked downElizabeth Street.

‘It’s fine. Why?’

Juliet shrugged. ‘You’ve seemed distracted the last couple of weeks.’

‘It’s all fine. Just busy. But there —’

‘Juliet, are there any eggs left?’ Sadie asked. She always went for seconds. Miranda called her the Human Scrapbin to her face, Piggly-Wiggly behind her back.

‘In the pan. Help yourself.’

‘Would you serve it up for me? Please?’

‘No bones in your arms?’ Juliet asked.

Sadie waggled her arms in a floppy way.

‘Fall for that and you’re a fool, Juliet,’ Miranda murmured, flicking the page of the paper.

Juliet served Sadie anyway.

‘Where’s Dad?’ Clementine asked.

‘Shed Land,’ Juliet, Miranda, Sadie and Eliza said together.

‘No, he’s not, he’s here. Morning, my lovelies.’ Leo Faraday came through the side door, bringing a gust of the cool morning air with him. He was dressed in a wide-lapelled grey suit, a crisp white shirt and a blue patterned tie. His hair had been slicked back, the usual dark red quiff smoothed over. ‘And yes, before you feel duty-bound to point it out, I do look extremely smart today and yes, I do have a meeting. Juliet, breakfast smells delicious. Miranda, what is that black stuff around your eyes, you look like a lady of the night. Eliza, have you been for a run already? Sadie, pick up your boots, would you? What’s up with you, Clementine? You look like a wet dishrag.’

‘She’s got a stomach bug,’ Juliet said.

‘Poor chicken.’ His concerned words rang false. He was smiling from ear to ear.

Juliet passed across the blue cup and saucer. ‘Everything all right, Dad? What’s going on out there?’

‘Good things, Juliet. Interesting things. Unusual things.’

‘In your mind, or in reality?’ Miranda asked.

‘We hardly see you any more, Dad,’ Sadie complained.

Leo put down his cup and rubbed his hands together. ‘Something hot is a-cooking out there, my girls. Something is nearly at boiling point. This time I really think —’

‘Good heavens, is that the time?’ Miranda said in an overly dramatic tone. They’d all had too many years of his invention talk. The revolutionary motor oil that put their old car off the road for three months. The device designed to repel spiders that had done exactly the opposite. The electronic rain gauge that burst into flames on its first test run. ‘I’d better finish getting ready or I’ll be late.’

Clementine stood up and ran to the bathroom again, clutching the facecloth to her lips. They all heard the door slam.

‘My word, she’s a sensitive soul,’ Miranda remarked, looking after her. ‘Clemmie, it’s all right, I’ll be back after work.’

Clementine returned a few minutes later, palefaced. ‘Sorry.’

‘Have you been sick again?’ At Clementine’s nod, Juliet felt her sister’s forehead again. ‘Are you sure you’re okay?’

Leo felt her forehead too. ‘You’re not hot, but you are a bit clammy.’

‘Clemmie’s clammy,’ Sadie said.

Miranda gave a bark of laughter. Sadie looked pleased. She liked making Miranda laugh.

‘Have you eaten anything unusual?’ Leo asked. ‘It’s not food poisoning, is it?’

‘No, I’m sure it’s not.’

‘Too many late nights, that’s what it is,’ Sadie said. ‘The sooner that romance – oh, I’m sorry, Clementine – the sooner that play is over, the better.’

‘What will I wear on opening night?’ Miranda asked. ‘My blue gown or that amusing little lace number my couturier sent over from Paris last week? What about you, Sadie? Will you wear that jumper made of yak hair or perhaps that simply darling little patchouli-steeped handweave I saw you prancing about in last week? How many small rodents died in the making of that, I wonder?’

Leo was still concerned. ‘Clementine, I’m not sure you should go to school today. You really do look peaky.’

‘I think she should go to the doctor. That’s the third morning this week she’s been sick,’ Sadie said.

‘Third time this week?’ Miranda raised an eyebrow. ‘Really? I didn’t realise that. Uh oh. It’s morning. She’s sick. Put ’em together and what do we see? P-r-e-g-n-a-n-cee.’

There should have been a laugh from one of her sisters. There should have been a denial from Clementine. There should have been a rebuke from Leo, and a smart answer back from Miranda.

Instead there was silence.

Juliet knew, right then. Was it Clementine’s expression? The fact that her forehead hadn’t actually felt that clammy or hot? The knowledge that this David of the play was all that Clementine had talked about for weeks? Whatever it was, Juliet wasn’t able to stop the words.

‘Clementine? Is Miranda right? Are you pregnant?’

Leo laughed. ‘Juliet, for heaven’s sake. She’s sixteen years —’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘— old.’ He swallowed. ‘Tell me you’re agreeing to the fact you are sixteen, Clementine, not —’

‘I’m pregnant, Dad.’

‘Oh Holy God.’

The room fell quiet. No cups being picked up, no cutlery being used, no newspaper being read. Just Clementine at one end of the table and her four sisters and father in the other chairs, staring at her, dumbstruck.