Newcastle Herald short story competition finalist 2018: A Special Night

WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story
competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Jonathan Carroll
WORTH 1000 WORDS: Each day we will publish a finalist in the Herald short story competition. The winner will be announced on January 27. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

CATHERINE stared, catching her breath as the final light of the day struggled to gain the upper hand over darkening clouds, and hoped that the mesmerising effect would help calm her mind, lower her heart rate, cease the sweat clammying her skin.

She’d have to find Lenore and apologise. Explain she’d been stuck at the office. Again. She’d laugh light-heartedly while recounting how she’d literally run across the park in her skirt and heels as a group of adept joggers surged past. A misfit at the back of the pack. She hoped the self-deprecation would make the apology sincere.

Alan had gone to get her drink. At least he’d not been late. He was never late. Lenore’s daughter ran up to her. Breathlessly, she kissed Catherine. “Thanks so much for coming, Aunty Catherine. It’s meant to be a secret, but I think everyone knows already ... I’m so happy for them.” And then she was off to share her excitement with the next guest.

Catherine felt her face flush slightly as she noticed the neat but casual dress of the guests. The muted tones and floral prints and off the shoulder tops contrasted with her blue suit and cream blouse – her standard attire these days. She nodded at a couple she was acquainted with, knowing she needed a drink before she could make small talk with Lenore’s friends. The woman nodded back and held up both hands showing crossed fingers.

Catherine knew not what to make of it and then surprise stung her as she realised there were many here she did not know.

Catherine marvelled at the transformation of Lenore’s backyard. The strands and strands of fairy lights around the deck and the lanterns in the small garden created a warm glow that seemed to diffuse the guests with a similar warmth. The effect was beautiful. Catherine wondered if she’d missed something. Wasn’t this meant to be a regular backyard BBQ? She cast her memory back to Lenore’s text.

She’s been sitting around a  table with the other Unit Supervisors. Someone was giving a presentation on what he considered should be the future protocols. She was annoyed by its lack of realistic strategies and timeframes. She inwardly shook her head in disapproval and discreetly checked her email as a distraction. There was one from Lenore: Hi Catherine. Haven’t heard from you about Friday week’s BBQ. Do hope you got the invitation I dropped around. Hope you and Alan can make it. Toby and Charli are welcome too, of course, but Alan said they’re overseas. 

“So Catherine, in terms of the strategic plan, how effective do you consider Outcome 12.2.1 of the Proposal in creating a unified 21st century response?” It was her boss.

Catherine’s instinct kicked in. She knew she could count on herself. She smiled and nodded as she looked from face to face. Confidently she launched into an only slightly disguised attack about the debacle the repercussions of implementing such an outcome would create, and as it was yet another vague motherhood statement with no veracity it would be guaranteed to slow down the real work of this office.

There was a long pause before her boss applauded and slowly others joined in. But not all. She’d just won another skirmish, but the battle wasn’t over yet.

As soon as she had the chance, she clicked reply and said that of course she and Alan would be there, but Toby was in Singapore and Charli in Stockholm. As she clicked send she felt a twinge of guilt at how she’d been less than an ideal friend of late.

Alan finally returned and handed her a glass of champagne. He looked perplexed.

“Do you know what’s going on? Everyone keeps saying ‘Isn’t this exciting!’ Didn’t you say it’s a BBQ?”

“That’s what Lenore said!” Catherine shot back, feeling accused.

In an effort to make sense of it all she mined her memory. She remembered the frivolity of their early years: their weddings somehow balanced with their emerging careers. She remembered the fear as she rushed to the hospital during Lenore’s caesarean – the relief and guilt she felt holding Lenore’s newborn baby. She remembered the frustration of having to spend over two years of her life being there for Lenore during her separation and divorce. She remembered they’d drifted in recent years; Catherine’s effort to win the next battle at work and her children’s blossoming careers consuming her.

Catherine tried to remember when she last seen Lenore. She recalled she’d called around not long ago, but could only stay briefly. She was introduced to her new house mate, whose name she struggled to remember now. Meleta? Meleela? Catherine had been pleased for Lenore. It must be lonely with Lara at her dad’s half the time and regular rent would certainly help her financially. When was that? Two months? Three? Catherine gasped when she realised it had been over a year.

Then she saw Lenore. She looked beautiful. Relaxed. Radiant. A soft, white summer dress flowing around her. Next to her was Meleta? Or was it Meleela?

Everyone was moving closer to them on the deck and a hush descended. A hush with a strange kind of energy; an almost palpable sense of anticipation. Catherine stared through the backs of heads as a third woman stood between Lenore and Meleta/Meleela. The new woman smiled and launched into a well-rehearsed speech. “Tonight is a special night and for that reason Lenore and Melana have asked that they be surrounded by the special people in their lives. For tonight, I am here to marry these two beautiful women.”

Alan quickly reached out and snatched Catherine’s glass and put a steadying hand out before both fell.

Catherine was once again at the back of the pack.