Jenny and her daughter walked slowly down the steps from the viewing platform on top of the cable car tower, not really wishing to tear their gaze from the view below. They had seen it many times before, yet today it seemed more perfect than ever. In the bright winter sunlight, Hobart stretched out in its comfortable sprawl below, hugging the contours of the hills down to the shores of the Derwent. The water glistened in the sunshine, sparkling blues and whites dancing in the broad river and the bays stretching East to the Peninsula and the ocean beyond. Behind the glass of the viewing platform, the sun had felt strong and the waters below had spoken of contented summer days soon to come. Out on the steps, though, the wind reminded them that Antarctica still ruled for now. Emily cried out to her mother, half in laughter and half in pain as the chill bit into her exposed face and ears, and increased her pace down the stairs.
“Come on, Mum, let’s get inside and have a coffee before my nose falls off!”
“I told you to wear a hat” Jenny said, laughing inside herself as the words came out. How ludicrous to be chiding her daughter like a child, she thought, as she watched the poised and graceful young woman dance down the steps ahead of her like the ballerina she was. For all her twenty eight years, her daughter had danced through life in joy. Jenny followed rapidly too, her own hat doing less than she would have liked to keep the cold scalpel of the wind out.
They scuttled across the car park and roadway to the café, laughing in relief as the door swung closed behind them.
“What do you want, Mum?” Emily asked her as she strode towards the queue at the counter.
“Just a flat white, please love. I’m just going to the ladies, OK?”
Jenny turned and looked for the toilets. Ahead of her, a woman pushed a stroller with a baby inside and a little boy riding on the back. Her face showed such an intensity of focus on reaching the change room that Jenny had to smile. As the young mother struggled to open the door while still controlling the stroller, Jenny reached out and held the door for her, saying “Here, let me.” The younger woman’s plaintive smile of gratitude seemed close to tears.
When Jenny came out of the toilet, she paused to look out of the window again on her way back into the café. As she rounded the corner, she could see Emily in conversation with a man with his back to Jenny. Emily’s face was turned up attentively to look at the man, her eyes twinkling, and Jenny felt she could see the colour very gently filling her cheeks. As her daughter looked towards her, Jenny could not resist giving her a pantomime wink as she drew level with the mystery man. Emily laughed and spluttered “Mum!” indignantly, her cheeks reddening more deeply, as the man turned towards Jenny as if from a reverie.
He was tall and wiry, even under the layers of down and fleece he was wearing, with short curly hair and pale, intent blue eyes, perhaps in his early thirties. On her first glance she thought he was beautiful. And on her second she knew that he was the most beautiful man she had ever met.
Jenny stood rooted to the spot, her mind freezing as her heart swelled in impossibility. The man also seemed paralysed, gazing intently at Jenny, before turning to look briefly at Emily and then back again. His eyes widened and he lifted his hands slightly in front of him, palms upwards.
Emily was smiling, quizzically, even as her mother stepped forward and gently took hold of the man’s upturned left hand with both of her own. His eyes were locked on Jenny’s face as she pushed up the cuff of his jacket. She looked down at his wrist and half-stifled a sob, as she traced the pink scar that ran from his wrist up his forearm and under his sleeve.
“Michael? Oh, Christ. Oh, Michael.” It was Jenny’s turn now to look from the man’s face to her daughter’s, whose smile was fading into confusion.
“Michael! What’s happening?” Another woman’s voice cut through the slow motion bubble that seemed to have enveloped them. It was the woman with the stroller. She and her children stared at the three adults in front of them expectantly. The man looked towards her, but his gaze rested on the two children, before looking back to Emily once more.
“Oh, Michael,” said Jenny again, softly letting go of the man’s hand. The café seemed to have gone silent, as she heard the blood coursing in her own head.
“Michael, please tell me what is happening here?” demanded the woman, loudly and with angry tears only just repressed. The man’s head snapped up, and for the first time he looked his wife in the eye.
“We have to go,” he said to her, and stepped towards the door.
“What?” she asked, tears now hot on her face.
“We have to go now,” he repeated, as he placed one hand on the stroller and one hand on his wife’s arm, turning both sharply towards the exit and pushing them onwards. The baby began to cry, while the little boy stared back at Jenny and Emily in fear. The baby’s cry disappeared with the thud of the door as it closed behind them.
Emily looked at her mother and simply asked “Mum?” Jenny made no reply. She stood motionless for a few seconds more, before also turning towards the door and running.
Yet she did not follow the man and his family. Instead, she careened out blindly into the biting wind and away from the café towards the cairn of rocks on the summit, where she knelt against a boulder and vomited repeatedly. The hot well of her long-forgotten sadness flowed up and out of her as if for hours, until finally the cold of the rock and the piercing air forced her to stand and stagger back into her daughter’s arms.