The ringing of my mobile phone startled me and, in a moment, I was awake with a jolt. I groped the table and retrieved it. The bright screen burned my blurry eyes as I answered the call, from Lizzie, which only calmed my racing heart a little.
“Lizzie, are you alright?” I sat up suddenly and threw back the sheet.
“Yes,” she gushed. “I did it. We did it.”
“Did what?” I asked, swinging my legs around.
“Oh, come on, Nina, get with the program,” Lizzie sighed. “John and I, you know, did the deed, popped the cherry, deflowered me, had sexual intercourse.”
“Oh.” I gasped, standing. “Oh.”
I was, all of a sudden, a lot more awake than I’d been before.
“Please don’t spread that around, though,” Lizzie begged.
She seemed to be asking me to keep a lot of secrets now.
“Of course, I won’t,” I promised again.
Lizzie was older than me, although only by just longer than a month. I did look up to my cousin, but not like I looked up to Mitchell. I was in awe of my brother, but with Lizzie, I had just seemed desperate to keep up. Now without Mitchell, Lizzie was the one just ahead and I felt desperate to approve her, even if I was concerned. When we finished on the phone, I placed it down. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to sleep again, but I must have nodded off. Waking up the next morning to the sound of the rain, I got dressed and met up with Geoff amongst the web of Sydney’s public transport. After our journey, we stepped off the train at Hornsby railway station. Rain streamed down and speckled the edge of the platform. Geoff and I climbed the staircase, then veered to the right towards the bus stops. We paused just before the awning ended. I retrieved the small umbrella from my bag and opened it up. Geoff smiled as we snuggled underneath it and moved out into the rain.
“Good on Mum, always has an umbrella on hand,” he commented.
“Well, it was obviously this morning, it was obvious from last night,” I mentioned, in regards to the very inclement weather.
“I don’t know,” Geoff admitted. “We’ll just have to wait and see. Where’s the house?”
“Just around the corner, just beyond the shops,” I answered.
The rain still splashed at our feet, but our bodies dressed up in party clothes remaining relatively dry en route to the birthday party of Sally, a girl from university. The birthday party in the park had been, sensibly, relocated to Sally’s house. It was an expansive home with tiled floors downstairs, which almost became a slipping hazard when we all trudged in, dripping wet. Geoff and I hovered near the kitchen, with drinks in hand. Our position meant that we would be closest to the food when it was brought out. Sally was sitting on the beige leather couch. Her long blonde hair was straightened and she wore a tight red dress which hugged her breasts and thighs. Sally’s earrings dangled almost to her shoulders. She was surrounded by wrapped gifts. Not knowing Sally particularly well – she was more friends with Lizzie than with me – I had selected a few pretty shades of lipstick. Noticing our arrival as new party guests, she rose to her feet, balancing on her high heels. Sally kissed me on both cheeks.
“Thank you for having us, this is for you.”
I handed over the present, clumsily wrapped in pink paper.
“Aw, thank you, Nina, you shouldn’t have.”
Sally placed the gift with the others. With glasses provided, I poured drinks for Geoff and I. I thought that I could hear a baby’s cry.
“Oh, the neighbours,” Sally explained. “They’ve got a little one.”
“Right,” I responded with a nod.
“I mean, babies are cute, but I’m very, very glad they’re a long way off for me.” She slurped her drink. “I like my sleep too much.”
The conversation moved onto travel, a pastime easier without children.
“I would love to go to Paris, I’ve never been,” Sally gushed. “It’s the city of love, after all. That would be gorgeous, I reckon.”
She turned to John, grinning dreamily. Surely my cheeks were burning tomato, glowing at the secret I kept. My heartrate rose further, as the song changed, onto a Taylor Swift tune.
“Say you’ll remember me,” I sung to Geoff.
I giggled, rather than crooning the next line. Collapsing against his chest, I kissed him on the jaw. Geoff rubbed circles into my back. Thankfully I was close enough to the food. I could reach across whenever I felt like it, even though I wasn’t particularly strong, exhaustion creeping in once more. I found myself constantly checking my watch, even though I knew it was rude. The rain came down heavily again.
“Are you feeling OK?” Geoff checked. “Do you want to get out of here?”
Before I could properly answer, Lizzie arrived.
“How are you?” I greeted her with a smile.
“Good, really good.”
Lizzie plopped down on the lounge right next to John. She was followed shortly after by Simon. He greeted Sally with a kiss on the cheek, then handed her a birthday gift. I was a little surprised at Simon’s presence. In my mind I pontificated with words like ‘should’, that he should have been with Bianca, rather than drinking with a mere acquaintance for her birthday. It wasn’t for me to tell Simon what to do. A shiver came over me. I couldn’t truly understand what he was going through, as he told me about his parents coming down from the north coast to see Bianca. This might have been the final time. I didn’t want to say those words. They seemed like they confirmed the reality, rather than the other way around.
“Do you need anything?” I offered.
“I don’t know how I’m going to get up there.”
“I’ve got a car. I can drive you.”
Simon blinked, eyes starting to well up.
“Yes, please. That would be great.”
Sally launched back into the room, following her mother. The older woman was a carbon copy of her daughter. She carried a cake, the candles already lit, which I felt was a ballsy move. I don’t think I finally took a breath until she placed it down in the centre of the table, the risk of the room catching fire reduced. The thought made me feel intensely uncomfortable, but I didn’t voice that. Following the birthday cake, Sally started to unwrap her mountain of birthday gifts. She reached for mine, removing the card first. I smiled, trying to feel the warmth of the others in the room. I found myself on tenterhooks, in each moment of uncertainty before the wrapping paper was torn away, or the bag discarded.
“Thank you, Nina.”
“You’re welcome. Thank you for having me.”
I never quite knew what to say in those situations. With plenty of guests, Sally quickly moved onto the next gift. Geoff turned to me.
“I reckon we should make tracks soon.”
We caught the train back. For a moment, I thought I might have felt a cold coming on. Getting off the train, we returned to the warmth of the vehicle for the rest of the way back home. Geoff pulled up his car outside the house in Castle Hill, which was across the road from the showground. He unfastened his seatbelt, then opened the driver’s door and stepped out, shutting it behind him. I stayed in the passenger seat and took a deep breath. Then, I opened the door with my bag hanging from my wrist and stepped out of the car. Geoff was waiting on the nature strip with an umbrella in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other.
“Thank you.” I smiled and closed the door behind me.
Geoff mirrored my expression.
“Are you right to go in?” he wanted to know.
“Yes,” I agreed, breathing out slowly.
Geoff locked the car. Huddled under the umbrella, we ambled up the front path of Tom’s family home. When we approached the tiled porch, the front door opened. We stepped undercover and Geoff folded the umbrella closed, resting it against the wall. I could hear music filtering down the hall. Tom’s mother answered it and let us inside.
“Thank you for having us.”
Geoff and I joined the group, listened to the Hottest 100, and were reunited with Tom. We were huddled together inside and under the awnings, unable to enjoy the expansive backyard of Tom’s family home. My cousin Hayley ambled over. Callista, from the university’s Compassion Alliance, was standing by her side, both with drinks in their hands.
“Lovely to see you again, Callista,” I greeted her.
“Lovely to see you again too, Nina,” Callista replied with a brief smile. “How are you?”
“Getting there,” I answered. “Pretty good. It’s great to have Tom back home. I mean, he has been going great guns in Iceland.”
“Hayley just brought me, I’ve never met him,” Callista admitted with a laugh, “but that’s great to hear.”
“Well, you should,” I advised. “He’s really, really lovely. He played cricket with my brother, Mitchell.”
The younger sister of missing Sydney man Mitchell del Reyan, Nina del Reyan lives on Dharug land in western Sydney. She has recently commenced a teaching degree at Macquarie University. Nina loves her family and friends and is deeply committed to finding answers and justice for the families of missing people.
Abbey Sim is the founder of Huldah Media. She is a creative writing, law and theology student who lives on the lands of the Dharug people in Sydney, Australia. Abbey desires to explore themes of hope, love and longing through her storytelling. She is the author of 'Shadow' and 'From the Wild'.