‘What’s she doing here? She hates Barbie’s!’ An unwelcome cloud of smoke obscured my vision.
‘Who?’ I splutter.
‘Look at her; mascara smudged down her face, flies landing on her sausage. It’s not her scene.’
I’m not sure it’s mine.’ I say, flicking the tears away. ‘Charcoal’s not my thing!’ I follow Mark’s stare past the wine table, to the left where folk are gathering. Amidst boisterous back slapping and friendly hugging, I see her, standing back from the guests, alone.
My cheeks flush crimson: ‘Laura.’ I rasp, my heart beat in my throat.
‘Suzy, you dummy,’ scoffed Mike. ‘You’re looking at the wrong face.’
‘I thought she was dead. It’s been years.’
‘Aw, gimme a break man.’ Mike goes to get us a beer while I drink in something far more appealing to my palate; Laura Oaks, back home, alive and kicking. Right here at the birthday BBQ.
The ‘rush’ simmers white hot, until memories and the pain of rejection slowly cool my ardour, yet again. Where had she been? They said she’d emigrated to Australia. I never heard from her; had no forwarding address. I study the solitary figure. Why isn’t she mixing? Laura’s a gregarious girl; she loves a party. The final dreg of hope drains from me when I see a young guy drape an arm around her shoulder and hand her a drink.
Surely not! He’s half her age. I watch him plant an affectionate kiss on her cheek. She smiles. I feel nauseous!
Blaring music, party poppers and firing champagne corks become a source of irritation to me. Birthday boy, eighteen years old to the day, releases multi-coloured balloons into the sky. I want to celebrate, but I can’t.
I deserve answers. Ok, it was what - maybe 20 years or so? Who am I kidding? That’s a long, long time! What business of mine is her life now? A kid runs by with a tray of kebabs: ‘Want one Mister,’ he asks. I shake my head. Mike holds up a beer and beckons me over. I don’t want beer. I want to be up close to Laura. I become a man obsessed; I really need to be with Laura!
I watch as toy-boy hangs onto her. I want to punch his lights out. But wait, this is my pal’s kid’s birthday bash; I can’t cause a scene. Anger is swirling in my guts. I’m ready to kill …
‘Whoa man … CHILL! What’s with you tonight mate?’ Mike asks, slurping the froth off his pint.
I ‘stroll’ stiffly by the food table, groaning under the weight of the feast. Thick rump steaks sizzle on the griddle. A small girl in fairy costume spears sausages with a stick then licks her fingers. My innards are in knots. I want to puke.
Toy-boy comes to bag a burger. I walk right up to Laura and stand face to face. Her still captivating smile hooks me right in: ‘Hi,’ she says. ‘How ya doing?’ I stare hard into her eyes. How am I doing; she asks me how I’m doing after 20 years of silence?
‘Laura.’ I hesitate. ‘Laura, I missed you; you know … when you went.’ She’s still smiling, but her eyes are cold. She’s different. Her hair’s cropped short; she hates short hair. She looks around, as if to check we‘re out of earshot: ‘Laura, why did you leave?’ I ask bluntly. She looks up, and meets my eyes. My heart lurches; she isn’t there. My Laura isn’t behind those haunted brown eyes!
Toy-boy returns with a beer. He thrusts out a hand and says: ‘Hi, we haven’t met.’
‘I’m Andy.’ I say graciously.
‘Jono.’ He shakes my hand. ‘You look kinda familiar.’ He does too, but I cut the small talk.
‘You’re young Jono.’ It’s more an accusation.
‘20.’ He says. ‘So you know mom, eh?’
‘Yeah. Saw her smiling at you. She barks at folk she doesn’t like.’ He laughs. The humour guts me.
‘Is she unwell?’
‘She forgets things; gets confused and cries a lot. The doctor’s ordered memory tests ‘n’ stuff. He says we should talk about things from her past. Sometimes it helps.’
‘Dunno.’ He shrugged. ‘Never had one; too late to ask now.’ I grasp Laura’s hand and cling tight as we weave through the revellers. I fit the bill; I’m what the doctor ordered. She’s mine!
As for Jono, I may need to explain why I look so … ‘kinda familiar.’
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