Derek hauls the purple suitcase down from the top of our wardrobe, grumbling.
“Why are you even going to this thing? I thought you hated high school.”
I have my reservations, but they are outweighed by long- forgotten memories that have been recently stirred up by a picture, a smell or an ’80s song – memories of big hair and sneaked cigarettes, long sunny days at the beach, rowdy lunch breaks in the school cafeteria and that Hawaiian-themed party at Sharon Jenko’s house, where Barney threw up behind the hydrangeas. It is hard to voice all of this, so I simply shrug and say, “It’s been 30 years. Besides, it will be good to catch up with Kelly.”
By now, Derek is back on the couch watching football, which is far more interesting than his wife’s high school hang-ups. Derek doesn’t have hang-ups, high school or otherwise. We live in a beautiful suburb of Brisbane, 10 minutes from where he grew up and one block away from his lifelong best mate. Me? I love my adopted home, but occasionally I do miss the sense of belonging you get from living in the country of your birth. I also regret that my son, Evan, has never been to South Africa. After all, it is his heritage, too.
But Derek would not allow it. “The place has one of the highest murder rates in the world! I won’t put my wife and son in that kind of danger. We can go somewhere else.” The furthest we ever went was Tasmania – and eventually, I stopped asking.
Then, a few months ago, my friend Kelly tracked me down on Messenger and declared that we simply could not miss our 30-year reunion.
“It’ll be a blast!” she insisted. “We’ll order Mojitos and laugh at how old everyone looks.”
I braced myself for an argument with Derek, but none came.
“Go, if you want to,” he said, and hasn’t mentioned the murder rate once.
Soon after, I began to hatch a plan. I’d been wondering what to get Evan for his upcoming 18th birthday. It should be something meaningful, something with history, something like my father’s old compass, encased in pewter and engraved with his initial: ‘E’ for Edward – or for Evan. Granted, getting my hands on it might be tricky, but the more I thought about it, the more confident I became. After all, family is family, right?
I quell a nervous flutter and roll my clothes to fit more in my suitcase. Is it hot or cold over there at this time of year? I have been gone so long I don’t really remember. I pack with a sense of adventure, rather than of going home, and wonder if anyone at the reunion besides Kelly will even remember me.
Half a world later I gaze down upon the deep blue sea and sandy coastline that hugs my hometown, unprepared for the wave of nostalgia that engulfs me as I step off the plane. I screw up my eyes against the spring sunshine just as a cool blast of wind blows me off-balance. It carries a trace of sea mist and the pungent scent of Fynbos from the nature reserve that borders the airport.
A jolt of recognition passes through me. I know this place. In my soul, I know this place.
I collect my luggage and point my rental car in the direction of Marine Drive, and my hotel. Cresting the hill that slopes down to the beachfront, my mother’s laughter echoes in my head: See the sea horses, Maxine? That’s what she used to call the white-tipped waves on a windy day and there they are, sea spray blowing off them like salty manes as they gallop across the bay. At the traffic lights a woman tries to sell me a bag of oranges, while another offers a selection of sunglasses. Smiling, I shed my new skin and slip back into the rhythm of Africa, wondering what the Health and Safety folks back home would have to say about people hawking their wares at intersections.
Kelly and I meet for lunch at a restaurant that was once our favourite club. We reunite with a bear hug that leaves me breathless, tearful and laughing all at the same time. She snags us a table beside the window, with a view of the promenade and the waves breaking over the rocks beside the pier.
“See what you’re missing?” she teases, with the throaty laugh of a long time-smoker.
I smile and swallow the compulsion to respond that I’m happier living in a place where razor wire is not a real estate selling point, thanks. Instead, I agree the view is beautiful and we chat as if the last time we saw each other was last month, not 29 years ago.
In an extraordinary moment of déjà vu, I see all at once five-year-old Kelly on our first day of school; Kelly at 10, holding my hand at my parents’ funeral; and then at 17, all dressed up for our senior dance. My heart overflows with affection for her and I dab at my eyes with a paper napkin.
“Maxine? You okay?” She peers at me with a kind, slightly bewildered expression.
“Fine,” I sniff. “It’s good to see you.”
“Same here,” she smiles. “But enough chit-chat. Tell me, why are you staying at a hotel and not with your sister?”
I bite my lip. “We fell out.”
Kelly raises her eyebrows in a manner that tells me to stop messing around.
I fiddle with my napkin. Where do I start?
“It was my first year in London. Claudia and her boyfriend came to visit. I think his name was Al, or maybe Ed.” The name conjures up a hazy image of dark hair and green eyes. “He gave me the worst hangover in history.”
“We all drank too much during a night out. Back at my place, Claudia passed out but meandAl–Ed?–carriedon drinking. There was music … we danced…”
I sigh and lower my voice. “I slept with him.”
I peek at Kelly across the table, expecting judgement but instead finding an odd mix of sympathy and disbelief on her face.
“Mm.” I feel an enormous sense of relief. This is the first time I have spoken the truth of that night out loud.
“Claudia found out?”
“She woke up in the middle of the night and came stumbling through to get some water. We were on the floor in the lounge. She literally tripped over us.”
“Needless to say, they left. She hasn’t spoken to me since.”
“What kind of a jackass sleeps with his girlfriend’s sister, anyway?”
“To be fair, I wasn’t exactly blameless.”
“Still a jackass,” says Kelly. “Are you going to look her up while you’re here?”
I ponder this while attempting to chew on a prawn – washing it down with a sweet gulp of white wine, thinking of Evan and his upcoming birthday.
“I’d like to, if she’s still in town.”
“She is. Bumped into her when I went to view a unit a couple of weeks ago. For when my divorce is finalised,” she explains.
Within minutes I have the address, but I wait until six before pressing the buzzer for Claudia’s apartment.
“Who is it?”
I am not expecting a warm welcome, but the cool gaze that greets me is intimidating as hell.
“Why are you here?”
She turns and I follow her across a tiled floor to the living area. Already holding a glass of what looks like whisky on ice, she moves over to the window and takes a sip.
I stop awkwardly in the middle of the room, my stomach in knots, my palms clammy. Unlike mine, Claudia’s place is immaculate, modern and devoid of personal photographs. Where would one keep something like an old compass, in a place like this?
“I came to apologise.”
“It’s about time.” She stares out of the window, which offers a twilight glimpse of the sea between buildings.
“Can you forgive me?”
She turns her head and looks me over.
“Seriously, Claudia. I made one stupid, drunken mistake and I’ve regretted it ever since. It cost me you. It cost my son his aunt.”
“You have a son?”
I nod. “Evan. He turns 18 next month.”
Claudia stares out of the window, sipping her whisky.
“I’m sorry,” I say.
“Fine. You apologised. I accepted. Move on.”
Leaving it at that would have been a win but instead, I babble on and before I know it, I’ve mentioned Dad’s compass.
Claudia’s disdain is like a dagger. “I should have known you were after something. So much for heartfelt apologies. Well, I lost it. It’s gone. As you should be.” By the time her words are out she is at the door, waiting for me to leave. “Go. Now. I have plans tonight.”
My heart sinks. “I’m here until Sunday. I fly out around midday. Can we get together before then? Please?”
She is as cold when I leave as when I arrived.
I feel wretched. No Claudia, no compass, and by the way not so much as “Hello” from Derek or Evan since I left.
Kelly is sympathetic about Claudia. We drive to a local wildlife park where I perk up watching zebra, giraffe and rhino graze unperturbed in the bush, and then the reunion is upon us – and to my amazement, I recognise almost everyone and they, me!
Under coloured lights and ’80s music, drinks flow and we are 17 again, giggling and partying as we did 30 years ago. We reconnect as the kids beneath our greying hair and middle-aged spread. For a short time I remember myself, too – the me I started out as, not the version carefully constructed to survive the last three decades. I desperately want to hold on to that feeling but I know it cannot last, so I squeeze every last drop of enjoyment out of it.
At the end of the night we band together to hold her steady while Kelly balances on a bar stool, signing our presence on the ceiling amid a hundred other autographs: ‘AHS Class of 1989’.
I was here.
Kelly and I stay up all night, talking. We watch the sunrise over the ocean from my hotel balcony. We promise to keep in touch and I send her away with tears in my eyes, to avoid an emotional airport goodbye.
After returning my rental car I am first in line at the check-in counter. The last thing I expect is to see my sister striding towards me while the airline lady is processing my passport.
Without a word, Claudia hands me a small black box. Inside, freshly polished, is Dad’s compass.
My eyes well up.
“I don’t know what to say.”
“No need to make a scene. Tell Evan his aunt would love to meet him.”
The check-in lady slaps my passport onto the counter in front of me and when I look back, Claudia is walking away.
“Thank you,” I call out and she waves a dismissive hand over her shoulder.
With hope in my step, I clear security and weave through the crowd to my boarding gate. The pulse of Africa beats all around me, in the jovial conversations, the smiles on people’s faces and in the very way they move.
I know this place. In my soul, I know this place.
My phone beeps. Derek’s timing is karmic.
Hey. You haven’t been murdered yet? Hope you’re having fun.
I smile and type my reply.
I am. But looking forward to coming home.
Author Therese Welch
Therese Welch was born and raised in South Africa but left in search of adventure, travelling to Ireland where she lived and worked for nearly a decade before finding her new home in Brisbane, Australia. Her job in IT has funded adventures that include skydiving over Africa, paragliding in the Canary Islands, ice-skating in New York City, climbing a volcano and skiing in the Alps (if you can call what she did ‘skiing’!). Therese has written numerous short stories, drawing inspiration from her travels.