‘Come in.’ Tilly unlocked the front door, and stepped inside. She’d known the house would be empty. Carrie and Becky wouldn’t be back for hours.
She eyed Hank as he followed her in. He smiled, a glint in his eyes.
Perhaps she would give in to him, fling herself into his arms and let him trail hot kisses down her neck. And when he left and never called, she could say, as she always did, men are no good, a waste of time – just like her father.
‘Excuse the mess,’ she said, as he closed the door. She popped her phone, now immersed in rice, on a table by the door, and headed through the hallway. Hank was so close she could feel his warm breath on her neck. They passed coats on the floor, a half-empty mug of coffee on a table, pictures of Becky hanging higgledy-piggledy on the wall.
‘We’re not very house proud, I’m afraid.’ Tilly bent to pick up Becky’s ragdoll, her skimpy dress rising. She tugged at the hem.
Hank stopped and looked down at her, his eyes widening. ‘Who does that belong to?’ he said.
‘Oh, this?’ Tilly looked at the doll with a painted on smile. ‘Relax,’ she said, rising and shoving the doll under her arm. ‘It’s my niece, Becky’s, Carrie’s daughter. I told you about her, remember?’
He furrowed his dark eyebrows. ‘The one whose husband done a bunk when she got the big C?’
Tilly bit her lip. ‘It wasn’t quite like that,’ she said, and trying to shake off an urge to throw him out, she took a deep breath. ‘So, Hank,’ she said, her hand on the handle of the kitchen door. ‘Do you like puppies?’
‘Sure, I like your puppies.’ He laughed, his eyes on her boobs. ‘Don’t look so horrified, Tilly,’ he said, his gaze moving upwards until it met hers. ‘It’s a compliment. You’ve got great tits.’ His lust was tangible.
What am I doing? she thought.
She opened the kitchen door and Poppy flew out, jumping up at Hank, wagging her tail.
‘No,’ Hank said, backing away, and pinning himself to the fridge. Several magnets clattered to the floor. ‘I was chased by a dingo when I was ten.’ He struck out at the overexcited puppy with his foot.
‘For God’s sake, she’s tiny, Hank, you’ll hurt her.’ Tilly dropped the doll, and tried to wrestle the dog away from him. But Poppy had other ideas, and briefly paused from her insistent determination to make a friend of Hank to do a tiny wee on the floor.
‘The little shit,’ Hank said, lunging his booted foot at Poppy again.
Tilly finally caught the dog and held it against her. She felt sure Isaac wouldn’t kick a dog. Isaac, who’d been so polite - so different from the awful men she’d let into her life over the last five years.
She drew some strength from somewhere, and pointed towards the door.
‘What can I say?’ Hank said, with an exaggerated shrug. ‘I hate dogs. It looks like a rat on steroids. In fact it would look better sitting on my shelf next to my pig-footed bandicoot’
‘Get out,’ Tilly said, marching towards him with the dog under her arm. And as if she was holding a machete, Hank flew from the kitchen, and down the hallway. He dived through the front door and slammed it behind him.
‘On second thoughts,’ Tilly said to Poppy, who was licking her chin.
‘I’m sure I couldn’t do any worse than Hank.’
Crickets in the hedgerow broke the silence of the humid evening as I walked towards the area of Springfield Lakes where I’d lived as a child.
I was searching for Tilly.
I’d tried calling her a few times, but her phone always went to voicemail. I’d even rung Molly Malone’s, but a bloke said she’d got a couple of days off, and wouldn’t give me her address. Even Mum couldn’t help. She’d remembered Tilly was staying with her half-sister, Carrie, somewhere in Springfield, but had no idea where. So, as a last resort, I’d decided I’d try her father.
I knew they didn’t get on, so it might not have been the best idea I’d ever had, but surely he’d know where his daughters were.
Tilly had never been close to her father. Being a cop he was away a lot, and when he was home, he’d often disappear into his study – into his own world. He sometimes tried to talk to her, or buy her gifts, but she was always dismissive of him.
I remembered how once, Tilly and I were playing outside in the pool, and her mother, Arabella, came into the garden, sobbing, telling her eight-year-old daughter that her father didn’t love either of them.
‘Please don’t cry, Mum,’ Tilly had said, heaving herself out of the water and rushing, dripping wet, to her mother’s side, where she burst into tears.
The route of most of the problems was the fact Mr Cooper had never divorced his first wife, Isobel, who’d lived in Inala with Tilly’s half-sister, Carrie at the time. Tilly told me once that her father still loved Carrie’s mum. Looking back, I’m pretty sure she was right.
Now I tried to piece things together as I strolled along. Mr Cooper had loved his first wife, but his head was turned by Arabella. She was beautiful, a model-slash-actress with long red hair. Younger than Mr Cooper and was the kind of woman men fancied.
He had an affair with her.
She became pregnant with Tilly.
Carrie’s mother kicked him out.
He never stopped loving Carrie’s mum.
Arabella got pretty pissed because he never stopped loving Carrie’s mum.
It was all so easy to see now, as an adult.
‘Mummy’s beautiful, isn’t she, Isaac?’ Tilly would say, as though she’d been brainwashed by the woman.
‘We’re going to leave Daddy one day, Tilly,’ I heard Arabella once say, as she lay on a sun lounger in the garden, a glass of something pink and bubbly in her hand. ‘We’re going to run away to New York, just the two of us. He’ll be sorry then.’
Each time I visited Tilly, on the rare times her father was home, her mother ended up shouting and screaming at him, and Tilly and I would rush to the treehouse and hide, escaping the profanities, and the things thrown violently by her mother.
Now, I headed down the road, passing the house we’d lived in before returning to England fourteen years ago, and walked up the curved path towards Tilly’s old front door. It looked as it had when I was young, although in need of a paint job.
I rang the bell. I had no idea what I was going to say.
I’d liked Mr Cooper on the rare times we talked, always fascinated as a kid that he kept criminals off the streets. But the truth was, I’d barely known him. He was always serious, as though whatever case he was working on was getting to him. He reminded me of stereotypical cops on TV shows, who keep a bottle of whisky in their desks to help them through.
The door opened. He looked as he had in the picture at Molly Malone’s. Rugged, as if his job, or perhaps life, had chipped away at him.
‘Isaac.’ I was amazed he recognised me after so long. ‘It’s past ten,’ he said, his voice rough and croaky.
‘Yeah, sorry it’s late.’
‘I didn’t know you were in Australia.’
‘I came back to…’ I struggled, still finding it hard to talk about my dad.
‘I heard about your father. I’m sorry.’
‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘I was looking for Tilly, actually. I wondered if you might be able to tell me where she lives now.’
He looked to the floor. ‘You’re lucky to catch me in actually,' he said. 'I’m packing, heading off to Sydney. They need help on a case.' He gestured for me to enter. 'Come in.'
His lounge was minimalistic, a black leather sofa, a slim unit with a 42” TV on top. A shelf of blu-rays, mainly action films - he seemed to like Bruce Willis – and several framed photos of Tilly and Carrie as children, and one of a baby girl in a pink and white checked dress.
Perfume hung in the air, and two glasses and a couple of empty Merlot bottles told me he’d had company earlier.
I sat down, and after a while, he brought through two mugs of strong coffee, and placed them on a glass-topped coffee table. He bent to zip up a battered suitcase. ‘So, Isaac, what have you been up to?’
Today? Since I was nine? Since I’ve been in Australia? With Tilly?
I took a stab. ‘I’m a system’s developer.’
‘Jeez, I bet that’s boring as fuck.’ He pulled the case upright, and stood it by the door.
‘I enjoy it, actually. I…’
‘Spare me the details, mate,’ he cut in. ‘I’ve only got the one life.’ He smiled.
‘It's honestly not that bad. I’ve applied for a few IT jobs here in Australia,’ I said.
‘You’re staying here in Aus?’
He grabbed a jacket from a hook and laid it on his suitcase, and as I fidgeted, wondering if I should leave, my gaze fell on another framed photograph. It was of Mr Cooper with his two daughters. Carrie, in her late teens, was hugging her dad and smiling, but Tilly, about nine, looked as though she’d been photoshopped in afterwards. She was standing some distance from her father. Birthday banners hung behind them, and I knew it was Arabella’s 30th and the picture must have been taken the week after I left for England.
I peered closer at the picture. Half-empty glasses of wine and lager filled garden tables, and in the background Arabella, in a sarong, stretched on a sunbed, a glass in one hand, a cigarette in the other – a cat curled at her feet.
Tilly had told me, tears in her eyes, that I would miss her Mum’s birthday party if I left. ‘You can’t go, Isaac. Please stay.’
‘My girls,’ Mr Cooper said now, noticing where my eyes had landed. He headed over and picked the picture up.
‘She never speaks to me,’ he said. ‘My little girl won’t give me the time of day.’
‘No, Bilbo bloody Baggins.’ He rolled his eyes and any sign of a sentimental side vanished. ‘Of course, Tilly.’ He put down the picture and sat next to me. ‘Her mother brainwashed her, made me out to be a monster.’
I knew that much. But then he’d done little to stop it happening, always preoccupied.
‘I was never a monster. A useless, obsessed prick, who should have fought for his daughter, yes, but never a monster.’ He swallowed hard. ‘And that day, the day this photograph was taken, I lost Tilly forever. She’s never forgiven me for what she thinks happened; never once attempted to believe my side of things.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, recalling how often their raised voices had invaded our treehouse sanctuary. How Tilly would huddle her face against her knees. ‘I hate him,’ she would say, with too much venom for a small girl.
‘I love Tilly.’ Mr Cooper's voice cracked. ‘I tried to stay in touch with her, but she didn’t want to know me - she believed her mother.’
There was toot of a car horn outside. ‘My cab,’ he said, rising and grabbing his case. ‘I’ve got a plane to catch.
‘OK,’ I said, relieved I didn’t have to drink the stew-like coffee he’d made.
I followed him out, down the path, and watched him jump into the taxi. As he pulled away, it hit me. ‘Mr Cooper!' I yelled. 'Where does Carrie live now?’
But it was too late. He’d gone.
The following lunchtime, I considered the coincidental side-effect of Phototime. I even went one step further and wondered if some people are truly meant to be together, and that there’s such a thing as fate, serendipity, or whatever people liked to call it.
Because, as I was queuing at the burger bar on the edge of Springfield Lakes, I saw Tilly sitting in the restaurant section by the window, her dark hair falling past her shoulders, a sadness in her eyes. She didn’t see me, so I tried to look nonchalant, diverting my eyes to the counter in front of me.
‘Isaac,’ she called.
I made a weak attempt at surprise. ‘Wow, Tilly, fancy seeing you here.’ I sounded pathetic, but didn’t let it stop me taking my tray of food over to her table.
I sat down opposite her, and within seconds she’d reached over and covered my hand with her own. ‘I was so sorry to hear about your dad,’ she said. ‘He was a lovely man.’
‘Thanks.’ It was kind of her, but I could feel the emotional surge inside me. I needed to change the subject. ‘So, how are things with you?’
She pulled back her hand, and furrowed her forehead. ‘OK, I guess.’
‘I tried to call you.’
‘Kept getting your voicemail.’
‘Ah, yes, I dropped my phone into a glass of wine.’
‘As you do,’ I said with a smile. ‘So your phone was too drunk to take calls.’ Oh God.
‘Something like that.’ She returned my smile. ‘You were pretty drunk the other day too.’
‘I wasn’t drunk, I was…’ It was impossible to explain, so I didn’t even try.
She sucked some coke through her straw. ‘Funnily enough, I was just thinking about when we were kids,’ she said.
‘Me too.' I paused. 'In fact, I went round to see your dad.’
She narrowed her eyes. ‘Why would you want to see him?’
‘I was looking for you, that’s all.’
She looked down, fiddling with the lid of her cup. ‘I would never be there.’
‘No, I should have realised. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t be.' She glanced at me. 'You weren't to know.’
Silence fell between us. I needed to bring things back. Make her happy.
‘Are you OK?’ I said, but I wasn’t asking if she was OK, I was asking if we were OK; me and her, her and me.
‘Well other than spending time with Hank, I'll never get back, I'm fine.’
‘You went out with Hank?’
Her face broke into a smile. ‘It’s good to see you,’ she said.
After another silence, where we fiddled with our straws and looked everywhere but at each other, we began talking as we had as kids. I told her about a job I’d applied for in Brisbane, about how my mum was only just about coping with the loss of my dad. I told her how much I missed him, and I talked about Cillian: a man I'd originally thought was as crazy as box of frogs, but turned out to be one of the best friends I’d ever had.
She told me about Carrie’s useless husband walking out, and how her half-sister was presently cancer free. She talked about her little niece, Becky. About the shop she owned in New York; and her plans to run a marathon – one day if she could only find the energy.
We barely came up for breath, tucked in our own little bubble as the world went on around us at breakneck speed.
‘Oh, and I can jump into photographs,’ I blurted out. I still have no idea why I said it. I suppose I thought I could tell her anything and everything, like we had when we were kids, but the look on her face told me I’d taken a step too far. ‘It’s called Phototime,’ I practically squeaked.
‘What happened was,’ I said, still too high-pitched. ‘A witch gave Cillian a potion.’
Her eyes grew wide. ‘Good God, Isaac, who are you, J.K. Rowling?’
‘It’s true, Tilly. Honestly.’ I bit into my burger, overtaken by hunger.
She watched me eat, a hand over her mouth.
When I'd finished, I said, ‘I’ve been in pictures. I've seen what happens after the camera flashes. And I’ve never suffered with a hairy bum.’
I couldn't help laughing at her expression. ‘It’s one of the side-effects,’ I elaborated. 'Well, according to Cillian it is, but my bum’s like a peach.’
‘Wait! Stop!' She held up a hand. 'Please say you’re winding me up, and you haven’t got brain damage.’
Why I thought she’d understand, is a mystery. I hadn’t believed in Phototime at first. I shrugged, feeling deflated. ‘Yes, OK. I’m winding you up.’
‘Thank God for that,’ she said, pressing her hand to her chest. ‘You had me going there. You’re turning into your dad, Isaac, making up stories.’
There was a thick silence as we finished our burgers. Every now and then she shook her head, as if she couldn't get over what I'd said.
‘So how’s your mum?’ I asked, eventually. ‘Does she still act and model?’
She shook her head. ‘No, she works with her husband.’
Tilly nodded. ‘She got married when I was twelve. Marcus is a plastic surgeon, who keeps her looking as stunning as ever.' She rolled her eyes. 'She’s forty-four, but looks like my younger sister.’
‘She helps out at his surgery, when she’s not shopping on 5th Avenue.’
‘And you? Do you like living in New York?’
She nodded. ‘Yes, but it’s nice to be here at the moment. I missed Australia, sometimes.’ She bit her lip. ‘But we had to go, Isaac,' she said, as though I'd spoken. 'My dad hurt my mum, and she’s never forgiven him, and neither have I.’ Her voice sounded suddenly bitter.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said.
‘It was a long time ago,’ she said, with a little shrug, her tone lifting a little. ‘I don't know how Carrie can still speak to him though, but I suppose he always loved her mum.’
‘So what happened, if you don’t mind me asking?’ ’ I hoped I wasn't crossing a line again, and wondered if I should change the subject, but she carried on talking.
‘I’ve never been sure,' she said, toying with her straw. 'All I know is, they went inside the house that evening, mum screaming at him, as usual. I was in our treehouse – remember our treehouse, Isaac?’
‘Anyway I heard my mum begging my father to stay away. She was yelling at him not to hurt her. It was awful.’ She paused, her eyes shining with tears. ‘An ambulance came, and Mum was taken into hospital, her head bleeding. She had to have an operation on her brain. He could have killed her, Isaac.’
‘God, that’s awful,’ I said, trying to make sense of it all.
‘Mum said Dad had got away with attempted murder because he was a cop. They closed ranks, she said.’ She bit her lip again. ‘I’ll never forgive him. Never.’
‘And you’re sure?’
‘Sure he caused the injury. Do you ever wonder sometimes if…?’
Her look told me to stop talking, and I thought I’d blown it.
Eventually, she nodded. ‘I suppose I do, yes. Sometimes I do wonder - want to believe he wasn’t capable of hurting her. But then I remember her screams, how scared she sounded.’
I struggled for the right words to pull her back from the past, but she did it herself, suddenly smiling and sucking the last of her cola through her straw so it made a noise like a fart.
‘I love my flower shop,’ she said, changing the subject. ‘My friend Jess is running it at the moment, but I’m heading back next month.’
‘No,’ I said, heart sinking. ‘I won’t allow it. I'll have every airport covered. You can’t go.’
She laughed, as if I was joking, but I really wasn’t. I loved being with her, and didn’t want her to disappear again.
We finished our drinks, and once outside I took hold of her hands, which were small and tanned with pale blue varnish on short fingernails.
‘Tilly,’ I said, feeling awkward, my romantic side desperate to tell her how I felt. ‘It’s been great seeing you.’
She smiled and leaned into me, and I took my chances, kissing her softly on the lips.
‘You too, Isaac,’ she said. ‘Call me. Text me. Leave a message after the tone. My phone will be out of the bag of rice soon and working perfectly. I hope.’
I laughed. ‘I will,’ I promised, as she walked away, glancing back to wave as I stood there like a lemon.
I ran all the way home like a kid, jumping over fences, kicking stones, and darting in front of cars.
‘Sorry,’ I said, as a bloke blared his horn and gestured obscenely. But I didn’t care. I didn’t care at all.