By the time Eliza Maxine Olivia Miller was eleven, she had lived in eight different country towns. Her mother liked to move a lot.
It was a hot November afternoon. Eliza and her mother Jeannie were currently living in Morwell, two hours from Melbourne. Eliza’s class was rehearsing Christmas carols for the end-of-year concert. She was thrilled to have been picked to stand near the front, holding up a tinfoil star. Tall for her age, she was usually asked to keep to the back of school groups.
After the rehearsal, her classmates talked about who’d be coming to watch their performance. Eliza just listened, still not quite part of the class. She often arrived at new schools in the middle of term, when most of the friendships were already formed.
One girl was the youngest of six, born and bred in the town. She announced that her whole family and all four grandparents were coming. They’d fill an entire row of seats. One boy had invited all nine of his cousins.
‘What about you, Eliza?’ another girl eventually asked.
‘Just my mum,’ she said, trying not to blush at the rare attention.
‘Your dad can’t make it?’
Eliza shook her head.
One of the other girls asked Eliza where her father was. Eliza told her she didn’t know.
‘But you must know,’ the girl said. ‘Everyone knows where their father is.’
Eliza went red, wishing the bell would ring, hoping the girl wouldn’t ask for her father’s name. She didn’t know that either.
‘You do actually have a father, Eliza, I promise,’ her mother had said once, smiling. ‘I’m not making him up. He just doesn’t live with us.’
‘Can I please meet him one day?’ She regularly asked that.
‘I hope so. One day.’ Her mother always gave that answer.
‘Why not now?’
‘Because he doesn’t live in Australia at the moment.’
‘Where does he live?’
Her mum leaned forward and whispered. ‘On the moon.’
Eliza’s mother had once told her that her father lived in a pyramid in Egypt. Another time she told her he was a spy for the Russians, working undercover – ‘that means in secret’ – and it would be dangerous for them to contact him. Once, she said he was a stunt double for a famous actor in Hollywood.
‘When will you tell me the truth?’ Eliza often asked.
‘The day you turn eighteen,’ her mother would say. ‘As I’ve promised you many times.’
After school that day, Eliza followed her usual routine, walking home alone and using a key hanging on a ribbon around her neck to let herself in. She hung up her schoolbag and changed into what her mum called her ‘casually casual’ clothes: brightly coloured, all from op shops. She took a shop-bought chicken pie out of the freezer and set the table for two. Her mum wouldn’t be home from her job at the supermarket until eight p.m., so it didn’t need to go in the oven yet. She washed out her mother’s wineglass and put the two empty bottles with the others by the back door. Then she found the latest list her mother had left her and started to work her way through it.
Lists were one of her favourite things. Her mum loved them too. They often wrote to each other in list form.
Her mum always used lists when she gave Eliza tasks to do around the house. Those lists didn’t just keep Eliza busy. They kept her company, in a funny way. The nights waiting for her mum to come home from her shelf-stacking job were sometimes lonely. Jeannie often worked weekend shifts too. She had explained that they needed money to pay for their rent, food and clothes. So while her having to work made their life harder in some ways, it made it easier in others. Her mum was always good at explaining what she called ‘both sides of the story’.
That afternoon after school, she did all her mum had asked.
Do me one of your lovely paintings. (Possible subjects – my pot plants? The green vase?)
Sweep the kitchen floor.
Watch two cartoons.
Eliza added other things herself. She played her favourite song on the recorder, trying to ignore the screeched notes. She went out to the verandah and filled up the bird feeder. She picked up her book and curled up on the worn couch to read. She must have fallen asleep. She woke when she felt the weight of her mother sitting beside her, felt her hand gently stroke her dark hair, heard her whisper.
She sat upright. ‘Oh no, the pie! It needed to go in the oven!’
Her mother soothed her. ‘I’ve done it, don’t worry. It won’t take long.’
As it warmed up, her mother asked her how her day had been. It was mostly good, Eliza said. Except in the last lesson one of the boys in her class had pinched her. It had hurt.
‘Do you want me to come to your school tomorrow and kill that boy?’
It was such a naughty thing to say that Eliza found herself giggling. She shook her head.
‘Could I hurt him badly?’ her mum said. ‘Blind him? Break his pencils in two? Set his books on fire?’
Another giggle, another shake of her head.
‘Spoilsport.’ Her mother smoothed her hair back in the way Eliza loved and kissed her again.
After dinner, they did the dishes together. Eliza was on the way to her bedroom to change into her pyjamas when the phone rang. She heard her mum talking and laughing. She guessed it was one of her two godmothers.
Eliza loved Maxie and Olivia. She only got to see them once or twice a year, with Maxie being so busy acting in her TV show in Sydney, and Olivia now living in a hotel filled with art in Edinburgh with her new husband and stepsons, but it was always great fun when they came to stay. Her mother was always so happy to see them too.
She was in bed reading when she heard her mum finish the phone call. Jeannie appeared at her bedroom door shortly after, with a glass of wine in her hand, a big smile on her face.
‘Eliza Maxine Olivia, I have major news.’
Eliza liked it when her mother made these kinds of announcements.
She came over and sat on the edge of the bed. ‘Tomorrow I will be phoning your school. I will say it is in regard to the forthcoming school concert. I will be asking the relevant person to reserve three tickets for me.’
‘One for me. And one for each of your godmothers.’
Eliza’s eyes widened. ‘Both of them are coming? At the same time?’
‘Both. Alive and dangerous,’ her mother said.
That concert was one of Eliza’s happiest childhood memories.
The school hall was packed by six p.m., every seat filled, people lining the walls too. Eliza kept peeking out from behind the stage curtains. She started to worry that they’d be late, or not get there at all. Something made her look just before the concert began. The back door of the hall opened. Her mother came in first, so pretty in a red dress, smiling widely, her black curls so shiny. Somehow, she spotted Eliza and blew her a kiss. Olivia was next, tall and slender with wavy brown hair. Then Maxie, curvy, with dyed-red hair. They were wearing colourful dresses too.
They looked so amazing that the photographer from the local paper came up afterwards and took a photo of them with Eliza. It appeared on the front page the following week. Of course, the headline was about Maxine Hill, the famous soap actress, being in town, but Eliza was still named, and so were her mum and Olivia.
In the photo, Eliza was standing in front, beaming, her long black hair in two plaits, dark against her white angel costume. Right behind, her arms wrapped around Eliza, was her mother, smiling too. They were almost the same height. To Eliza’s left, Maxie; to her right, Olivia. They were like two guardian angels.
Her godmothers stayed for three nights. Eliza went to bed each evening to the sound of the three of them talking and laughing, of corks regularly being taken out of bottles. It felt different to Eliza, much better, to hear the cork noise when there were others with her mother.
At some stage over that weekend, the godmothers’ holiday plan was hatched.
‘We made a solemn promise about it,’ her mum told her the morning they left. ‘I wanted to seal it in blood but we shook hands instead.’
Every year from now on, she explained, Maxie and Olivia would take Eliza away for a week or so each. It would mean she’d have two holidays a year. She’d get to know her godmothers, and they’d get to know her. It would also give her mum a break.
‘Not that I need a break from you, sweetpea. But they said I was being selfish keeping you to myself.’
The first year, both holidays were in Australia. Maxie still lived in Sydney. Olivia was based in Scotland but had come back to see her family. But as the years went by, with Maxie moving to the UK for her work too, the destinations became more exotic and interesting. By the time Eliza was seventeen, she’d visited Edinburgh, London, Paris, Singapore, Hong Kong and Hanoi.
Eliza never knew beforehand where she was going. A month before each holiday, she’d receive a letter or, in later years, an email, telling her the departure date and what to pack. On the chosen day, her mum would drive her to the airport or train station. Only then would she learn the destination. Her mum would kiss her goodbye and stay waving for as long as she could see her. When Eliza came home, full of stories, her mum was always waiting for her, eager to hear everything, see photos, exclaim with delight over the gifts Eliza would bring back for her.
The year she was seventeen, she’d been staying with Maxie in New Zealand. It had been a magical, action-packed week, visiting glaciers, lakes and movie sets. She’d rung her mum from their hotel the night before she flew home, as always, to confirm her arrival time.
‘Thank God. I’m missing you desperately,’ her mum said from their small house in Heathcote, a town one hundred kilometres north of Melbourne. ‘Tell the pilot to put his or her foot down. I want all speed records broken.’
‘I’ve got so much to tell you. Today we went to —’
‘No, no, don’t tell me. I want to hear it face-to-face. Every single juicy detail. Don’t forget anything.’
Her mum sent her an email the next morning too, written in their favourite list form.
It was a turbulent flight from Auckland to Melbourne, but knowing her mum would be at the airport made it bearable. Sometimes Jeannie prepared a sign that she’d wave as Eliza appeared through the doors. WELCOME HOME TO THE BEST DAUGHTER IN THE WORLD, the last one had read.
‘Too bad if it’s embarrassing,’ she’d said to a mortified Eliza. ‘It’s true.’
It was after eight p.m. when Eliza stepped into Arrivals, smiling, gazing out at the crowd, searching for the beautiful familiar face. An hour later she was still waiting. Their home phone went unanswered. So did her neighbours’. She finally remembered they were visiting their son in Sydney.
Eliza had no choice but to go to the taxi rank and negotiate a fare – far more than she could usually afford. Thankfully Maxie had slipped two hundred dollars into her bag as she left. Several times on the journey to Heathcote she thought about asking the driver to stop at a public phone box so she could ring Maxie, or Olivia. Each time she talked herself out of it. Everything was all right. Maybe her mum had been called into work. Or was having trouble with the car.
The lights were on in the house as the taxi dropped her off. Her mother’s second-hand Honda was parked in its usual place. Eliza could hear music. Her heart started thumping as she reached for her keys.
She stepped into the kitchen. There was an empty bottle of wine on the table. More empty bottles by the rubbish bin. The music was coming from the bathroom. Cheerful music. A jazz station, an announcer telling his listeners that coming up was a trio of classics. Eliza kept moving, down the hall, towards the bathroom. The door was wide open.
Sarah Vaughan’s smoky voice was playing loudly as Eliza ran forward and frantically tried to pull her mother’s lifeless body out of the half-filled bath.