One Whole and Perfect Day Online - Judith Clarke

1

PROPER FAMILIES

Every day on her way home from school, Lily dawdled in the quiet streets and avenues of her neighbourhood, gazing through the windows of the houses at the families inside. She saw kids watching TV and doing their homework and playing computer games; she saw mums and dads talking and laughing together, chopping vegetables in their kitchens, stirring pots on the stove. Proper families, Lily would think to herself, they’re proper families.

Not like hers. She had no dad for a start; he’d bolted back home to America when Lily had been no larger than a plum pip deep inside her mother. She’d never actually seen her father, and when his phone messages came at Christmas and birthdays, she found she didn’t know what to call him: ‘Dad’ sounded awkward in her mouth, unnatural, like a cold hard pebble rolling behind her teeth. Her brother Lonnie, who’d been almost six when their father had left, experienced no such trouble. ‘Oh, hi, Dad,’ he’d go, so confidently, so naturally. ‘Oh?’, he’d say, and ‘Yeah, Dad!’, and the very ease with which he spoke the word ‘Dad’ always gave his sister a small, sharp pang. Even though, on the ordinary days that made up most of her life, Lily rarely gave a conscious thought to her absent father.

Though parties reminded her. Those perfect parties other families seemed to have.

Lily paused on the footpath to let a homecoming car ease into its driveway through gateposts where a clutch of bright balloons fluttered. Their round bright perfection made the breath catch in her throat. She watched the car door open and a man get out and two little kids come racing across the lawn towards him, yelling, ‘Daddy! Daddy’s home!’

He swept them up, each in turn, and whirled them round in his arms.

For a second, Lily’s stomach clenched in longing, and then grew easy again.

Ah well. She hitched her backpack more comfortably across her shoulders and walked on down the street. You can’t miss what you’ve never had, can you? She certainly didn’t miss Oliver DeZoto, this guy her mum had married twenty-three years ago.

Plenty of kids had single parent families. Lily knew that, just as she knew it wasn’t the absence of a father, or even the smallness of their family (only the three of them – five if you counted Nan and Pop), which marked them out. No, thought Lily irritably, it was the sheer peculiarity of the people in it that made her family not quite right.

First there was Lonnie.

Lonnie. Lily shook her head so hard, so briskly, that tiny little sparks flew from the ends of her dark frizzy curls. The very thought of her hopeless brother made her feel angry, electric, especially on a darkening winter afternoon when there was dinner to get on at home, and tons of homework after.

Forget about Lonnie. She’d think about Mum instead because Mum was okay; a slender woman in her forties with wispy blonde hair pulled back from a delicate face that always seemed to wear an apprehensive expression. The worst you could say about Mum was that she worried about Lonnie too much, and worked too hard. She was a psychologist, she had a doctorate (she was Dr Marigold Samson!) and yet she worked in a daycare centre for the elderly, slaving long long hours for very little pay. Mum could get a better job, Lily was sure of it, yet she persisted in her slavery, bringing home piles of paperwork and sometimes actual people, elderly lame ducks whose carer-children, so Mum said, were quite desperate for a little break.

‘A little break!’ snorted Lily. Mum was the one who needed a break. Mum was such a softie! She was just like Nan.

A tiny smile tweaked at Lily’s lips. Nan! With her small plump figure and soft white hair shaped in a little girl’s style (straight around the ears, thick shiny fringe down to her eyebrows), her lavender scent and floral dresses and long droopy cardigans, Lily’s Nan looked like a granny from a picture book. Except for one thing: she had an imaginary companion like little kids sometimes had, a made-up friend called Sef. Sef accompanied Nan most places, round the house and garden, up and down the hilly streets of Katoomba, and Nan held conversations with her, in public, speaking in a low sweet voice, offering confidences and asking Sef’s opinion on anything to do with family.

When Lily was little this had seemed quite natural. ‘Who’s Sef?’ she’d asked.

‘An old friend,