Like Honey by Joanna Horton

The pawpaw has to be sliced just so: in wedges not too thick, but not too thin either. First, Laura heaves the knife down the middle and it splits open, two halves falling heavily away from each other on the chopping board. Then she begins to slice, concentrating on the task. She’s cut herself doing this before — blood splattered richly over the fruit, her finger throbbing and wrapped in gauze. But that was when she was little, and begged to help prepare the fruit for Luke. Now she’s sixteen, and left to do it because her mother won’t.

“Not won’t,” Mom would say, if she were here. “Can’t. Laura, I don’t get back from work until six and we’ll need to leave for the restaurant straight away. You’ll just have to slice it up before we go, is that too much to ask?” They’d had some version of this fight — conversation, Mom would say, as though Laura were one of her clients, in need of calming down — this morning, before Laura left for school and her mother for work. “All right,” Laura had said finally, “I’ll do it.” Never mind, she thought grumpily, that I might cut my finger again. And her mother had hardly even thanked her. “Don’t forget the lemon juice,” she’d said on her way out the door.

Now Laura leans over the plate of cut fruit, breathes in its heady, slightly pungent smell. Does pawpaw smell good? She can never decide. To her, it smells like Luke — she can never catch its scent without thinking of him. He always comes to see them in the summertime, when the pawpaws are on the tree in their garden, and he always asks for them sliced in wedges, with lemon juice squeezed on top. Well, he doesn’t ask, actually. He’s been coming for so long, every year like clockwork, that he no longer needs to ask at all.

When she was younger, Laura had thought that Luke was her father. This misunderstanding was discovered in a roundabout, embarrassing way: a Father’s Day card, made at school. “Dear Luke,” Laura had written in thick, childish crayon letters inside. “Happy Father’s Day. Love, Laura.” At home, she’d proudly shown the card to her mother. She doesn’t remember, exactly, the conversation that followed, but she remembers her mother holding the card wordlessly, remembers a silence that went on for too long. She stopped thinking of Luke as her father after that. “Who is my father?” she remembers asking her mother once, thinking that at least there ought to be someone whose name she could put on a card. “He’s no one,” Mom had said, and the brittle sound of her voice told Laura not to ask again. The question still floats between them sometimes, especially during their worst fights, but Laura has never given voice to it.

And anyway, Laura had thought of Luke as her father only in a vague, Where Did I Come From sense. He was never a dad, not like her friends’ dads, with polo shirts and sports on TV and the strange bitter smell of beer on their breaths when they give her a lift home. They always want to give Laura a lift home, but when she thanks them they are gruff, embarrassed, looking anywhere but at her. “Know it’s just you and your mum,” Maddie’s dad had muttered just last weekend, staring off at a point somewhere behind Laura’s left shoulder. “Like to help out where I can.” Which Laura had thought was a very odd thing to say: did he think Mom couldn’t drive? But then, his breath had smelled more strongly of beer than the others; she’d kept catching the sour, yeasty hints of it as he drove. Laura finds beer gross, only drinks vodka Cruisers on the weekends. Casey’s older sister will buy them a six-pack of Cruisers each, if they give her the money and $10 extra for her trouble. This is becoming an expensive habit for Laura, but she’s hardly going to be the only one not drinking at house parties. She doesn’t actually enjoy these parties, but after two Cruisers she can pretend to be having a good time. “Dance with me!” Casey will shriek, and Laura can get up from her chair and lean slowly into the soft, whirling dizziness of the music. Twirling, holding Casey’s hand, she feels warm and light, as though a heavy cloak had dropped to the floor. “Myself without myself,” she’d said to Casey once while they’d been dancing. The words had flowed suddenly through her lips like water, like honey; she hadn’t meant to say them out loud.

“What?” Casey had said.

“Nothing.”

Laura wonders now if Luke would buy the Cruisers for her — if she could find a way to ask him tonight, without her mother overhearing — but quickly discards the idea. He’d say yes, probably, but he’d tell Mom (thinking it was all a great laugh) and then the jig would be up. “Game over,” as Casey would say, blowing her fringe up from her face. Mom would never let her go out again.

“You’re so lucky; just you and your mum,” Casey had told her the weekend before last, when they’d had a sleepover at Laura’s place. They were under the duvet in her bed, half-watching the vampire movie playing on the laptop. (Absolutely not Twilight — Casey was into the hardcore stuff, the real bloodsucking.) “I hate my dad. And my brother. Wish my parents were divorced.”

Laura’s friends tended to assume that her parents were divorced, and she didn’t bother to correct them. She didn’t tell them about the father who was no one, or about Luke. “It’s not that great,” she said to Casey. “You get away with more, I bet. I don’t get away with anything.”

Her mother had popped her head around the door then, as if on cue. “Is it?” she said mildly. “That’s good to hear. Goodnight, girls.” This was another thing that irked Laura — her mother’s way of throwing South African phrases into conversation, as though it were no big deal. Is it? she’d say, or ja, like a German, and Laura would shriek at her: “Mom! I told you not to say that!” Her mother’s accent, her phrases, all of this foreignness embarrasses Laura deeply. She herself has successfully shed any trace of an accent in the ten years they’ve been here. She sounds Australian now; you’d never be able to tell. She even experimented briefly with calling her mother Mum, but found herself unable to keep it up.

The pawpaws are all sliced now, fanned out in wedges across two plates. When she first cut them open they looked garish, and almost — she searches for the word — vulgar, those deep hollows of black seeds in the ripe orange flesh. But now they are sliced properly into demure wedges, neither too thin nor too thick. Laura cuts a lemon in half and squeezes it over the fruit. She wraps the plates in cling film and puts them in the fridge. Later, after dinner, they’ll come back here and the pawpaw will be ready for Luke, sweet and cold just the way he likes it.

***

They are late, but only by five minutes. Luke is waiting when they walk into the restaurant, trailing apologies. “Don’t be sorry, don’t be sorry,” he says, standing up to greet them. “It’s a privilege to be kept waiting by the most gorgeous mother-daughter duo in town.” Laura is stupidly, unexpectedly relieved by his presence — even though he comes every year, even though he’s never let them down, she never quite believes he’ll be there until she sees him. And now here he is: tall and handsome in his dark suit, his cologne that smells of black peppercorns, his lips cool when they touch her cheek. “Hello, my beautiful girls,” he says. “It’s so good to see you both again.”

They sit and look at the menus. Laura can’t pronounce most of the dishes — they’ve got long Italian names, dancing in curls across the page. She supposes the restaurant must be good because it’s expensive, like all the restaurants Luke takes them to. When she was little, she remembers, their dinners with Luke were the only meals they’d eat out all year. They were poor then, when Mom was a student and Laura stayed after school every day with Nancy next door and her four boys. One of them was called Rex, she remembers, and they used to lie on their stomachs on the lawn and try to catch the skinks that skittered through the dry, brittle grass. At first, Laura hadn’t even known what a skink was. There were so many words like that: ringtail and huntsmen and cane toad, words that had the natural ring of ownership in her classmates’ mouths, but remained mysteries to her. “Want to catch skinks?” Rex had asked one afternoon in his shy, soft voice, and Laura had nodded yes without knowing what she’d agreed to. When Rex lay down on the lawn she’d been frozen with uncertainty, but lay beside him anyway and when he’d said “That’s a skink,” and pointed to the gray-green shimmer in the grass, she’d laughed with relief and they’d been friends, after that.

“What do you think, darling?” Luke asks, and Laura looks up automatically, but he’s talking to Mom, of course. To hide her mistake, Laura glances around the restaurant, which is dimly lit and flickering with candlelight. Wine bottles line the far wall, and Laura thinks it looks like somewhere you’d go on a date, a real grown-up date with dinner and drinks, not like the handful of times she’s been to the movies with Josh Petty after school. She’s embarrassed, now, remembering his sweaty hands and the gruff way he’d paid for her popcorn. What would Josh Petty do in a place like this?

Maybe Luke can tell what she’s thinking, because he asks, “Any boys on the horizon, Laura?”

“No one special,” she says.

“Soon enough,” says Luke, and Mom sighs. “Ja, I’m sure,” she says.

Mother.”

“She’s told me and told me,” Mom explains to Luke, shrugging her shoulders in that way she had, with her palms held up to the sky. “I’m not allowed to say that. It’s too South African.”

“Well, you’re among friends here, surely. Laura, are you embarrassed by my accent too?”

“Of course not. Yours is more like — it’s more exotic.”

“Darling, I’m from Joburg the same as your mother.”

“I know that. It’s different though. Mom just does it on purpose to embarrass me.”

On another night her mother would have taken offense at this remark, but she’s had a glass of wine and the colour in her cheeks is bright, and she just laughs. Luke drapes his arm over the back of her chair. “You’ve got your work cut out for you with this one,” he says, nodding at Laura. “What are you going to be when you grow up, Laura? A lawyer?”

“Maybe.”

“She spends enough time arguing,” says Mom.

“You’re ganging up on me!”

“No, darling,” says Luke. “You should be a lawyer. You’d be good at it. Better paid than social work anyway, isn’t that right?” He winks at Mom.

“More or less everything is.” Laura hears the wry wince in her mother’s voice. They’re all right now: they don’t eat canned tuna on crackers for dinner anymore, and when Mom got her job they moved to a better house and Laura said goodbye to Rex and the skinks in the grass. But she still knows not to ask Mom for certain things. “It’s not that I don’t want to,” Mom had said once, when all Laura’s friends had been planning a trip to Dreamworld. “It’s that I can’t.” It had been September then — in the summer, they’d have new clothes and meals out, but spring was always the tightest time. Something in her mother’s face had made Laura shut her mouth, then tell Casey that she didn’t want to spend all day queuing up for a bunch of boring sweaty rides anyway.

“We’ve got pawpaw in the fridge for you at home, Luke,” she blurts suddenly. And then feels hot embarrassment drench her face — it’s childish, surely, to be so bent on old rituals. What if Luke doesn’t want the pawpaw, or doesn’t remember it?

But Luke smiles warmly at her as he pours more wine into Mom’s glass. “I’m glad you remembered,” he says. “I can’t taste pawpaw without thinking of you girls, you know. The first pawpaw I ever tried was from your tree.”

“Really?” Laura asks. She hadn’t known this.

“You were just little, Laura,” Mom says.

“You would’ve been about eight or nine,” he says. “It wasn’t too long after you’d moved here. You were in that unit on Russell St for a couple of years — ”

“I remember that,” says Laura.

“Right. Well, then we moved you into your new place. And there they were on the tree! We didn’t even know what they were, at first.”

“We had to ask Mel next door,” says Mom. “She looked at us like we had two heads. Do you remember?

That’s pawpaw. Didn’t youse know that?” Luke does a surprisingly good job of mimicking Mel’s broad Australian accent, the way her face appears permanently scrunched up in suspicion. Laura’s laughter spills out of her.

“Then we had to get them off the tree!” says Mom. “We stood in the garden poking at them with a broom handle, and then of course a storm started to roll in.” Listening to her, Laura can taste the scene at the edge of her memory: the ripe fruit rolling tantalisingly at the end of the broom handle; the first cool drops of rain splattering their arms. Metallic taste of a summer storm at the back of her throat. Is she imagining it, or was she really there? Did she stand with them under the tree? Or did she lurk at the edge of the yard, feet on the hot pebbled concrete, and watch Luke with her mother as they laughed together, lunging the broom handle up into the branches?

“I’m sure we looked completely mad,” Laura’s mother says. She takes another sip of her wine. “But that was such a long time ago.”

***

They’re hardly in the front door before Mom’s phone buzzes. She looks at the display and makes a noise of frustration. “Timing!” she says under her breath. “Sorry, I have to take this. It’s a client.” She makes a face at Luke and Laura, swipes her finger across the phone to answer.

Laura’s mother doesn’t often give her number to clients, but when they call her they’re always in distress. From where she stands in the hallway, Laura can hear the tinny sound of the woman’s sobs on the phone. She used to get scared by these calls — she can remember nights when she crept out of bed to listen to the hum of her mother’s voice in the living room, her ear pressed to the bright splinter of light under the door. Tiptoeing back to bed, she’d lie there huddled under her warm blankets, torn between fear for the woman on the other end of the phone and relief that it had nothing to do with her.

Now she’s less concerned. It’s not her problem, after all. “One time,” she tells Luke, “I told Casey — you know, my friend? — about how Mom gets these crazy phone calls from these crazy women, and she was all horrified. Like, she never even thought about it before?” The shock had fallen across Casey’s face like a curtain, and all the next day she’d treated Laura with a strange mixture of sympathy and reverence. At first Laura had enjoyed it, but soon she’d found it irritating — as if she were one of those real bad-luck kids, like Annie whose sister had died of leukaemia or Grace whose father was schizophrenic. Then at lunchtime she’d heard Casey excitedly telling James, “Laura’s mum works with abused women. Like rape victims and stuff!” and James had said, nah, there’s no such thing, they all enjoy it really. Bitches lie, you know? Then Laura had felt herself hot and weightless with rage, and she’d crossed the courtyard in three strides and hit James across the face. The only time she’s been in real trouble at school, and she never told Mom why.

She doesn’t tell Luke any of this either, just watches his face to see how he’ll react. “Your mother,” he says, pouring himself a glass of wine from the bottle on the countertop. “She’s something special, really she is.”

Laura doesn’t roll her eyes, but it’s a near thing. Yeah, yeah, Mom is special, she’s a saint, we know. Deliberately avoiding Luke’s eye, she crosses to the fridge and takes out the cling-wrapped plates. The pawpaw slices are still bright, with a thin layer of condensation. She sits down beside Luke at the kitchen table and thrusts the plate of fruit at him. “Here you are. Made just for you.”

“With your own fair hands. Thank you. OK, let’s see … ” Luke surveys the plate in front of him. He selects a slice, takes a bite, closes his eyes. “Laura. You’ve done it again. You’re an angel.”

“Not me. The tree did all the work.”

Luke takes another slice, looks at her while he eats it. She feels his glance running the length of her body. “You’ve grown up so quickly,” he says.

She shrugs. “Mom says that all the time. Doesn’t feel like it.”

“Oh, growing up always feels like it takes a long time. But you should enjoy being young, Laura — trust me. It’s over before you know it.” Abruptly, he passes his wine glass over to her. “Speaking of — you’re old enough now.”

Laura’s eyes flit to the door of her mother’s room, which makes Luke laugh. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell if you won’t.”

She straightens her shoulders. “OK then.” The wine tastes bitter, but she swallows it through clenched teeth, hoping Luke won’t notice. “Thanks.”

“My pleasure.” He takes the glass back, swigs from it, passes it back to her. “I can’t get over it,” he says. “Little Laura, a woman. Look at you.”

She feels herself blushing under his gaze. “It’s only been a year.”

“A year can change a lot of things. Don’t you think?”

Laura stares into the glass, where the wine makes a dark circle, delicate and clean-edged. She tilts it from side to side, and the circle sways. “You could come more than once a year,” she says. “You could come and see us all the time.”

Luke falls silent, and Laura feels dread beginning to bloom in her stomach. It’s an unspoken rule: never ask Luke about his life. Never put pressure on him to come again. She has seen her mother perform this awkward dance for so many years, face tight and mouth stretched, trying not to say the wrong thing. She takes another sip of the wine, and it goes down easier this time.

“It isn’t that easy,” Luke says at last. “My work is demanding, Laura. You know that.”

Laura nods, fidgeting with her necklace. “Luke is very busy” — how many times has she heard that from her mother? Laura has always known in the back of her mind that he must be rich — rich in the way of dark restaurants with walls lined with wine bottles; rich in the way of expensive cologne. Rich like they’ll never be, even in the summertime. Even on the mornings after Luke’s visit, when there is always a neat pile of bills, flushed yellow and green, tucked under the electric kettle in the kitchen. Laura has never counted them, never touched them, never mentioned them to her mother. Tomorrow, she knows, she’ll go about her morning as though they weren’t there; she’ll fit herself around the bulk of their presence in the room. She won’t look at them, even as she feels them drawing her eyes like a magnet. In the afternoon when she gets home from school, they’ll be gone.

“I hope you know that I wish I could spend more time with you,” Luke says, his voice low. “My girls.”

“Are we still? Your girls?” The highness of her voice embarrasses her; the way it seems to float in the air, inconsequential, dissipating. She grips the edge of her chair.

“Of course.” Luke takes a long drink of his wine and holds her eyes over the rim of his glass. “You always will be.”

The silence between them is different to any Laura’s ever known before: rich and heavy. She breathes it in, lets it flow around them like honey.

“Well, maybe it’s better this way,” she says, and this time her voice sounds better, cutting through the silence like a small, precise knife.

“How so?” His voice is a low murmur. Under the table, his hand finds the hem of her skirt.

“We’ll never get tired of each other,” she says. As his hand touches her leg, she shuts her eyes, dizzy. Bubbles form in her chest; she feels them climb and burst, then form again. Luke’s fingers move in slow circles up her thigh, and she digs her nails into the underside of her chair. The pawpaw sits on the table between them, abandoned. And from the bedroom she can hear the distant hum of her mother’s voice, low and steady, talking a stranger through the night.


Joanna Horton is a writer and radio producer living in Brisbane, Australia. Her work has appeared on The Millions, The Toast, 4ZZZ, and on her blog. You can listen to her radio show here.