Milestone: Lucy would have begun year five today.
My morning ritual has remained virtually unchanged over the past ten years, five months and sixteen days since my baby girl was taken although instead of it occurring in the dream home on three acres with rooms we never even used in the two years we lived in it that my now ex-husband and I bought to raise our fledgling family in (we planned to have at least three children) it is down in the small apartment I bought in the inner-city suburb of Malvern.
I get up, I walk into the room where much of Lucy's stuff remains even though she's never lived in this apartment and would have grown out of all of it many, many years ago, pick up a silver-framed photograph of her, gently touch my lips to it and then walk over to the calendar where I mark off another day. Another day where Lucy and I are apart, another day where I feel like a piece of me is slowly dying. But on this day I linger a little because today is the first day back at school for the year and today Lucy would have begun year five. I've seen mothers and children in the shops, getting their books and glittery pens, getting iron-ons for their pencil cases and chair bags, their uniforms and sports uniforms, and each happy young face was like a slap across my own.
My psychiatrist suggested that the ritual that was almost calming in the early days of Lucy's disappearance has now become a habit and might be doing more bad than good but I can't stop doing it because it would feel like cutting one of the few ties remaining between Lucy and myself, like giving up hope. Not that one single person besides me believes Lucy is still alive. They think I am deluding myself but nobody has said that for at least five years now. I don't think it is because they don't care whether I want to live in a dream world or not but rather because they don't want to talk about it. Contrary to the way I felt the world did not stop turning when Lucy was taken. There is only a certain amount of sadness one's friends and family can take before they begin to feel uncomfortable when the topic is raised and find themselves avoiding you during the bad times. I don't blame them because who is not to say I would not have acted the same if it was not my baby girl who was taken.
The ritual over I go into the kitchen and put the kettle on. While it boils I put away the dishes from last night- one bowl, one soup spoon, one extra-large wineglass. The night before there had been two wineglasses but with the latest milestone of Lucy's life looming large in my mind I think I probably scared the poor guy I'd been set up with by one of my oldest friends off for good. Since Lucy died I haven't been able to really sustain a relationship with a man, even the few I had wanted to. Kevin had found my shrine to my missing daughter weird and split. Jake had been amazing and sweet but he had a son Lucy's age. It seemed I collected the detritus from failed relationships like my Pop collected stamps.
The kettle whistles and I make a coffee and pour myself a bowl of muesli and begin to eat. A toilet flushes in the next door unit and I wait for the hacking cough because my elderly neighbour has chronic emphysema from a lifetime of smoking as well as working as a welder without adequate protection when he was younger. He doesn't disappoint me. But I don't complain because I am sure I have kept him awake at night crying on many occasions.
Half an hour later I am on the train on the way to work when my phone rings in my bag. I don't even need to look at the caller I.D to know who it will be. My ex-husband Luke. (Luke, Lori, Lucy and I were the 3 L's for three months. If Lucy had of been a boy she would have been named Lachlan. Luke even bought me a necklace with 3 gold diamond encrusted L pendants on it. I've still got it though I don't wear it anymore. I'm not sure whether that was because of the fact that he was willing to believe we had become the 2 L's so quickly and then unwilling to even be the 2 L's.)
"Hi Luke." I say.
"Hey Lori." He says.
Silence for a moment. Then, "The kids are back at school." Luke tells me.
"Yeah, I know." I respond with an aching heart. He has two kids. But in truth he has three if he hadn't given up and believed Lucy was dead when the police were certain, when everyone else was certain. I often wonder what will happen when I find Lucy, will he apologise for not believing in a mother's intuition? Will he feel bad that he let my belief, my feelings, drive us apart?
"I've seen kids on the train. Kids of Lucy's age." I say.
"Yeah. I can't believe she would have already been in year five. And next year her last year of primary school." Luke says.
I bite my lip to stop from saying "is", knowing that would only piss him off. I want to do the polite thing and ask about his two children- Tony who is six, and Joanne who is three- but today being the day it is I just can't.
More silence, though it is not overly awkward which might seem surprising given the situation. Our divorce wasn't pleasant exactly but it wasn't acrimonious either. Even though we are not married any longer we are always going to be connected because of Lucy.
"So how is Cathy-" I begin.
"So how is work-" Luke simultaneously begins.
We both laugh.
"You go first." I say.
"No, ladies first." Luke says. Ever the gentleman. Or at least so he would like everyone to believe.
"How is Cathy?" I ask.
A slight pause, then, "She's well. Good." But this is said with a little too much enthusiasm. Once upon a time I knew this man better than he knew himself. I knew what every cadence in his voice signified, what it meant when he raised an eyebrow or rubbed his forehead, what he was thinking even when he was saying nothing. Even now I know he is lying but his evasiveness tells me he does not want to talk about it and I do not push it because, really, what right do I have to do so? I'm his ex-wife, not his wife. His past, not his present or future.
"And work?" Luke asks a little too eagerly.
"Same old, same old." I answer. I shift in my train seat and wish the man sitting next to me did not need to read "The Age" because it was not exactly the right size for train reading material. Didn't he know you could read it online on your phone, iPad, or reading device for God's sake?
"What is it like with the promotion? Extra money equalling extra stress?" Luke questions.
After Lucy was taken and I finally got back to work things changed between myself and my work colleagues. Of course they were horrified and sympathetic but after awhile they seemed to avoid me. So when I decided accounting was as boring as bat-shit and went back to University part time to earn a degree in nursing and then gained a RN job at the Epworth Hospital in Richmond I found myself not even telling my colleagues that I had a daughter out there somewhere, taken from me. I'd made good friends even despite that and though I sometimes felt I was living a secret life in searching for my little girl I managed to keep Lucy compartmentalised inside my brain. And recently I had been promoted to 2IC of the Ambrosia ward (surgical).
"Actually it's not what I expected. When the NUM is away I have to do all her administrative functions and I feel like its less hands on nursing which is not necessarily what I wanted. And more responsibility but that's not a bad thing." I explain.
"Heavy is the head that wears the crown." Luke quotes.
"Something like that." I admit.
Now we have run out of topics to discuss. We can't talk in too much detail about Lucy on a milestone day because the train is no place for me to sit and cry over the phone. Plus I've always disliked people who have ultra-loud mobile phone conversations in public like their life is just so damn exciting/depressing/whatever that we all need to hear about it. Case in point: the girl who would have been no more than fourteen telling the whole carriage about her pregnancy scare and how her boyfriend would have dumped her if she didn't have sex with him in painful details the other week. Or the lady who's boss made Meryl Streep's character in "The Devil Wears Prada" look like an angel. But even though I know I am heading down a very dangerous track I can't help but say, "I wish she was still here."
"So do I. It's strange but sometimes, just for a split second, I forget she's gone and I think oh, I should tell Lucy about this or I think I see her and then when I look again she's not there and I remember she's dead." He says heavily. His voice has that dry sound like you get when you are getting a cold which is what he sounds like when he gets emotional.
I grit my teeth and clench my fist so tightly around my iPhone I am lucky it does not crack the case.
'Don't say it, don't say it, do not say it!' My brain pleads with me.
But my heart- the same heart which has a permanent fissure etched deeply in it from the events that fateful day- does not listen to my brain. I'm stubborn after all. "Taken. Not dead." I argue.
Luke's sigh is heavy down the phone. "Oh Lori, for God's sake..." He says.
"Luke listen to me. I've got a meeting with another P.I and he thinks he's got a genuine lead on Lucy." I say urgently.
"And how much did this one cost? Did you pay upfront or after he delivers this supposed information? Or is he a charlatan like the host of psychics, ex police officers, cranks-"
I cut him off. "Why don't you come to the meeting? Then you'll see." I say, hating the pleading in my voice. I feel like I'm begging for scraps and that makes me angry. It is his daughter too after all; he should be tilting at windmills with me.
"She has a grave." Luke says.
I think of the tiny grave in the children's section of "The Necropolis" cemetery in Springvale which is so huge that you need to follow different coloured lines to different sections and chapels and can't help but shudder. That tiny little grave with no body in it. The children's section is particularly depressing with the bright toys, balloons, wind ornaments, the grief hanging heavy in the air as parents do the one thing they had never, ever imagined would be done: buried their child. And though I know Lucy is not dead I have gone to that little monument on many occasions just to talk to her, to feel connected to my missing daughter.
"With no body in it." I return.
"The police declared her dead Lori." Luke says. This is something he has said to me about a thousand times and at first it was said with patience and pain but, over the years, the emotion has been removed from it so that it is often said in the tone you might say "I feel like Maccers for dinner."
"You and I both know you don't have to be dead to be declared legally dead." I argue. The man reading "The Age" newspaper gives me a funny look, like I've escaped from a loony bin somewhere like the Thomas Embling. I resist the urge to give him wide eyes and my best yes, I do belong in a straightjacket but what's it to you look.
"Ah Lori. Can we not do this? Not today." Luke begs me.
The train is no place for this conversation so I relent. There is no point trying to get an admission from him that there is even a possibility Lucy is not dead. There is no point trying to make him feel guilty for giving up when I know, as a mother, that my daughter- no, our daughter- is still out there somewhere and will one day be reunited with me. If he knew about my wall of Lucy he'd have me committed. Plus the train will be pulling into Richmond station any minute and I will have to squeeze off it onto the platform, walk down the ramp, and complete the brisk ten minute walk to work so having an argument with your ex-husband whilst trying to do that would be extremely hard. "Sorry. I'm almost at my station anyway." I say.
"Right. So...have a nice day at work and we'll talk." Luke says. He means he'll keep tabs on me. I've told him I'm not his responsibility anymore, haven't been for nearly eight years, but he never listens. It would be nice to think this was out of love but really it's because he feels sorry for me and he also fears what I might do when he doesn't check in on me.
"Sure. You too. Say hello to Cath and the kids." I say with a breezy cheer I do not feel. That he has kids and I have one that I do not have right now hurts like hell. I know I should not resent him for it, should not be jealous of his happiness, but I am.
He knows that but still pretends to accept me at my word. "Will do. Bye Lor." He says.
Oh I wish he wouldn't call me that old nickname. I used to get it occasionally from friends growing up and for some reason I absolutely hated it, possibly because some of the mean girls at school used to call me Lord instead, but when he used it, back when we were a we rather than a he and I, I loved it. It made me feel special, having that little nickname that only he used for me. I'd spent ages trying to come up with a similar nickname for him but there weren't many derivatives of Luke. I should have put a clause in the divorce papers: "Luke McLean shall hereby cease to call Lori McLean Lor or any other affectionate name used in the course of their marriage from this day forwards."
My ex-husband hangs up and, for a long moment, I listen to the dial tone in my ear, not quite able to completely sever the connection but that is ridiculous because he's already gone. And has been for a very, very long time. I click my phone off and replace it in my handbag just as the train slows down on the approach to Richmond station. I move past the newspaper reading man who looks relieved to get rid of his crazy fellow passenger- oh, if only he knew!- and head for the rest of my day.