Georgie thought of that afternoon a few months ago and the meek puff of steam she had become in the boys' playroom. She could barely believe that a single word might do her in. As a nurse she'd copped a swill of curses, from dying men and girls in labour, from junkies and loonies, princesses and smartarses. Patients said vile things in extremis. You'd think a woman could withstand three simple syllables like stepmother. But the word came so hot and wet and sudden, screamed into her face by a nine-year-old whose night terrors she'd soothed, whose body she'd bathed and held so often, whose grief-muddy daubs she'd clamped to the fridge, that she didn't even hear the sentence it came wrapped in. She just lurched back in her seat like a woman slapped. Stepmother. The word had never been uttered in the house before, let alone fired in anger. It was fair in its way; she understood that. Along with his need to win, his desire to wound, Josh was merely clarifying her status. She could still see his face wrinkled and sphinctery with rage. It was his geriatric face waiting for him. For the sake of a moronic video game he was defining her out of his life while his brother Brad, who was eleven, looked on in silent disgust. As she got up to leave Georgie was ashamed of the sob that escaped her. None of them had seen Jim leaning in the doorway. There was a universal intake of breath. Georgie left the room before a word was uttered, before she let herself break down completely. She ducked beneath his arm and scrambled upstairs to bawl into a teatowel until she was steady enough to slop chardonnay into a glass. Jim's voice was quiet and ominous rising up the stairwell. She realized that he was about to hit them and she knew she should go down and put a stop to it but it was over before she could take herself in hand. It had never happened before, none of it. Later Georgie wondered if it really was the S-word that had broken the spell or the knowledge that she might have spared the boys a belting and hadn't even tried. Either way nothing was the same.
That was late autumn. Within a few weeks she turned forty and she was careful to let that little landmark slide by unheralded. By spring and the onset of the new season she was merely going through the motions. Another man, an American, had once told her in a high, laughing moment his theory of love. It was magic, he said. The magic ain't real, darlin, but when it's gone it's over.
Georgie didn't want to believe in such thin stuff, that all devotion was fuelled by delusion, that you needed some spurious myth to keep you going in love or work or service. Yet she'd felt romance evaporate often enough to make her wonder. And hadn't she woken one heartsick morning without a reason to continue as a nurse? Her career had been a calling, not just a job. Wasn't that sudden emptiness, the loss of some ennobling impulse, the sign of a magic gone?
In her time Georgie Jutland had been a sailor of sorts, so she knew exactly what it meant to lose seaway, to be dead in the water. She recognized the sensation only too well. And that spring she had slipped overboard without a sound.
That's how it felt sculling about in the lagoon this morning while the sky went felty above her. Woman overboard. With nowhere to swim. What was she gonna do, strike out for the fringing reef, head on out into open water, take on the Indian Ocean in her birthday suit with a liberated mongrel sidekick? Stroke across the Cray Bank, the Shelf, the shipping lane, the Ninety East Ridge? To Africa? Georgie, she told herself, you're a woman who doesn't even own a car anymore, that's how mobile and independent you are. You used to frighten the mascara off people, render surgeons speechless. Somewhere, somehow, you sank into a fog.
She lay back in the water wishing some portal would open, that she might click on some dopey icon and proceed safely, painlessly, without regret or memory.
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