Break In

                         When he arrives at the house a police car is parked in the driveway, and it is a constable who answers the door. “I’m Craig Bradbury, the girls’ father, and Nadia’s ex-husband. They rang me,” he explains.

This is true. The telephone had woken him at something past two o’clock, and Bethany, his eldest at fourteen, had blurted out, “A man got into our house and hurt Mum. The police are on their way.”

Frantic, he had hurried from bed, pulled on some shorts and a knit shirt, and raced to his car, hesitating for just a moment to reassure himself that he would be under .05, it being a Friday night and he had been drinking with friends after work.

As he is ushered inside, he hears Bethany say to the policewoman interviewing her, “When Mum came into the bedroom, the man grabbed her by the neck and groped her like he did me, except real hard so it hurt her.” His stomach lurches. Nadia comes up to him and grips his arm, both to give and receive comfort. The policewoman then asks if she got a good look at the man, to which she replies, “Yes, when Mum switched on the light I saw him and I’m pretty sure I recognized him. He sometimes hangs around the station when we get off the train from school and makes comments to the girls as they walk past – gross things, even though he’s man, not a kid. He has tatts and wears black tee-shirts with old-time goth bands on them, Black Sabbath and that sort of stuff. I saw the police speaking to him one time. And I think I noticed him a couple of times in our street this week.  The woman is obviously pleased with this answer and requests her to come to the station in the morning to look at some pictures.

The police indicate that they have finished taking statements and assure them that a car will come past at regular intervals through the night, but Nadia remains uneasy. “We’ve only got vinyl insect screens and all the windows were open, it being such a hot night. He just cut through the one in the girls’ room. On Monday I’ll arrange to replace them all with steel-mesh,” she tells Craig after the police leave.

He readily makes the offer, “Lock all the windows and you can stay with me at the flat. No-one is going to break into a third storey.” So it is agreed. Nadia and the girls pack nightwear and a couple changes of day clothing and they come with him, all in his car. On the way they tell him of what had happened. Bethany had been woken by a man touching her beneath her sheet. When she had tried to call out, he had gripped her tightly around the mouth to prevent her, but her sister, Abigail, woken by the scuffle, had screamed. It had been then that their mother had rushed in to be seized by the man, who after briefly assaulting her, had run from the room, taking Bethany’s iPad as he went.

When they reach the flat, the two girls move in and take themselves to the room they share when they stay there, as they do at least once a fortnight, but Nadia hesitates at the door. She would not come even as far as the landing when he was living there with Sue, and even since he has been alone, she has never passed the front door. He has to take her hand to lead her in.

As he does so, he gestures to take in the small lounge cum dining room, with its neat corner lounge and coffee table and the cheap extendable table with chairs which match the timber and fabric of the lounge. He is pleased that there is nothing out of place, especially that the kitchen is neat and with no dishes in the sink, as he desires both her approval and also to demonstrate that, even though he is now partnerless, he is maintaining proper standards of care. Actually, she would be surprised if it were otherwise: he had always been almost excessively neat, rinsing and wiping used glasses, carefully stowing newspapers and magazines, and arranging his wardrobe so that all like clothing hung side by side.

The apartment has only two bedrooms, the larger one where the girls are already tumbling into their beds, and the slightly smaller, taken up almost completely by his bed, unmade from his hasty departure: and it is to this second that he leads Nadia. She experiences a small moment of panic when she fears he might expect to share it with her, but then he says, “I hang the air-mattress I take when I go fishing in the wardrobe: it’s better for it than keeping it in its bag. And I’ll pinch one of the blankets from the bed for when it gets cooler- I’m sure that it won’t get so cold that you need two.” He then offers to change the sheets, but she assures him that this is not necessary, after which he takes himself into the lounge-room. She feels just faintly disappointed: after her experience she would like the comfort of his arm around her as she struggles with the memory of the evening, but tells herself that it would be unlikely that he would let it rest at that, and she certainly wants nothing more from him.

In the lounge room he inflates the mattress, and when he goes to collect some sheets for himself from the linen press, notices that Nadia has not completely shut the door, so that, with the bed-lamp shining behind her, he can see the contours of her once-familiar body through her light cotton night-dress, and is startled by what he recognizes to be the totally inappropriate arousal he feels.  Seeking to stifle it, he hurries back to the lounge room.

But he cannot settle. Desire for his ex-wife, mingled with guilt at what his leaving her has now brought on both her and their daughter, holds sleep at bay. He is aware of the statistics indicating that the children of single parents are at greater risk- of under-performing at school, of experimentation with sex, drugs and alcohol, of being the victims of assault or worse- but he had discounted it with regard to his girls, because surely the daughters of a mother who was so straight-laced and ambitious for her children as Nadia would be in fact far safer than those of many two-parent families. Still awake an hour later, he hears a rustle of movement and, looking down the hallway, he sees Bethany, cuddling a pillow to her stomach, creeping into her mother’s room. He hears her voice and then Nadia’s and is surprised at how clearly the voices carry. At first, they talk in general terms about break-ins, but then he is startled to hear Bethany ask, hesitantly  as if preparing to confess to  wrongdoing, “Mum, when I was not really awake and wasn’t aware that the man was there, it felt sort of nice when he was touching me. Does that mean there’s something wrong with me?”

He hopes Nadia will know what to say, as he is certain he would not. Nadia commences to speak reassuringly, but then Abby, having sensed Bethany’s absence from the room, comes thumping down the hall to join her mother and sister.  The three continue to talk but, Nadia, aware that the noise of Abby’s entrance would possibly have woken him, insists that they speak softly, so that he cannot make out what is being said. Lulled by the murmur of female voices, he drifts off to sleep.

Craig wakes about two hours later than usual but discovers the others to be still asleep. Knowing that he has no milk and little bread in the house, he quietly dresses without showering and slips down to the supermarket, where he buys the milk, a variety pack of cereals, a fruit loaf and some bread. When he returns, he finds Nadia showered and dressed, the sound of the door when he left having startled her into wakefulness, and the girls straggling out from the bedroom, hair uncombed and still in their night dresses. Nadia informs him that she has rung the police and arranged to be at the station at eleven. Since it is already nine-thirty, they eat more quickly than he would have liked and hurry out.

At the station, the detective indicates that she wishes to interview Nadia and Bethany separately, so it is he who accompanies Bethany to the interview room. At first, she enquires concerning the girl’s well-being, but then states, “We are holding a man who is assisting us with our enquiries.” She then places on her desk an i-pad with a pink cover onto which has been pasted a picture of a boy band, as she adds, “He had this in his backpack. He claims he found it on an early morning walk down your street and that he was intending to bring it into the station later this morning.” Her expression indicates the credence she gives to this story. “Do you recognize it?”

Before giving an affirmative answer, Bethany takes the device and taps in the access code, at which the screen lights up. The woman then shows her eight or nine photographs of men, all in their thirties, all badly shaven and all wearing dark tee-shirts. Bethany unhesitatingly picks out one of them. Following that the detective thanks them, and it is their turn to wait outside with Abby while Nadia is interviewed.

When Nadia comes out, she informs them that the police are pleased that they did not remain in the house over-night, as they wish to check the room for fingerprints, and will be out to do so at about two. Craig is more than a little disappointed, as he had hoped they would come back to the flat for lunch, but he drives them home. However, he does hit on an excuse to remain in their company. “I’ll get some gauze and replace the screen after the police have finished. He then drives to the hardware store where he buys the mesh and a roller, after which he goes home, where he eats a hasty lunch and collects his drill, and then returns to the house.

By the time Craig arrives, the fingerprints man has almost finished and, once he leaves, Craig sets to work on the screens. He not only replaces the mesh on the girls’ room but bores small holes in all of the sills, enabling the windows to be locked in a slightly open position, so that there can be some ventilation without anyone being able to break in. When he shows it to Nadia, she strokes his arm and smiles at him.

His careful workmanship and the trouble he has taken produce in her a gush of affection, and she recalls how, after meeting him for the first time, she had told a girl-friend, “I’d really like to get to know that Craig better.” She had not felt that way about any man since, not even the former colleague whom she had, rashly and in defiance of her often stridently expressed principles, permitted to make love to her in his car one evening about six months after Craig’s desertion. That same feeling returns to her momentarily now but, recalling how he betrayed her, she refuses to nurture it.

She surprises him and to a degree herself by telling him that, although he has rendered the house safer, she would prefer it if she and the girls spend the night at the flat, so will drive over a little later in the afternoon. Pleased, he suggests taking them for a Chinese meal. Later, at the restaurant, the girls demonstrate their proficiency with chopsticks and speak over each other excitedly: having both their parents at the same table has resurrected in them old hopes which they dare not utter and which are more than likely liable to be disappointed.

Back at the flat they go to their room readily but stay awake, talking well into the night. Craig and Nadia sit side-by- side on one section of the corner lounge. With pretended carelessness, he drapes his arm along the back of the lounge behind her. He desires to let it fall to her shoulders but does not quite dare. Similarly, she would like him to put his arm around her, and has decided that she will snuggle into him if he does, but when he makes no move she determines to take no initiative herself.  They speak little but concentrate on the show, even though it does not appeal much to either of them, and at ten-thirty go almost wordlessly to their separate sleeping-places.

In the morning she informs him that she and the girls will be going to the nine-thirty Church service they usually attend and invites him to join them, but he refuses, commenting, “I think the roof would fall in if I turned up there with you after all this time.” For most of their marriage he had attended with them often enough, passively acquiescing to the faith while not holding it with anything approaching Nadia’s fervency.

While they are out, he goes to the shops, where he buys some meat and salad ingredients with the view to putting on a barbecue. Of course, it won’t be the same as when he lived with them, with the four-burner gas barbecue and the hardwood outdoor setting in a backyard, but he is excited by the prospect. He sets up his electric barbecue on the balcony by feeding a line through the kitchen window, prepares a green salad and a more elaborate potato one, generally tidies the flat and sets the table, so all will be welcoming when they return. As he straightens his room, he fishes from the bottom drawer of his bedside table a picture of them all, taken at their last Christmas before the separation. He and Nadia are smiling and the children holding new toys- Bethany is only ten and Abby still has some gaps in her mouth which await second teeth. He hesitates to place it on the table, knowing that the closeness the photograph seems to display is a sham: already he was committing adultery with Sue, and Nadia was beginning to suspect. However, he determines to put it there, discretely behind the bed-lamp.

The girls go straight to their room on returning and play a little too quietly with the i-pad. Nadia joins him on the balcony while he prepares to put the steak and sausages on the barbecue. As they look out at the identical flats across the courtyard, she places her hand on his arm and says, “I’m worried about Bethany. You know, how at the end of the service, they invite people who desire prayer or counselling to go out the front. Well, she was on her way down the aisle the second the invitation was given, not even waiting for the benediction. She was picked up by Renee Smart, the new youth worker, thank goodness- Renee’s good value- and spent ages with her. When she finished, she didn’t seem relieved the way kids often do after talking to a counsellor, but more anxious if anything. She’s put up a good front since the assault, but I think it has affected her more than she has let on to me. I know she is very nervous about the possibility of facing the man in Court. And she’s carrying a lot of baggage on account of you and that woman.”

He feels this last comment unfair, but cannot reply to it, so is relieved that the cooking demands his attention.

The luncheon is enjoyable beyond all his expectations. The girls chatter raucously, recalling events from their early childhood when Craig and Nadia, doting on them and each other, had taken them to all the pleasures offered by Darling Harbour, and on other days to Manly and the Powerhouse Museum. Nadia makes sly affectionate jokes, just as she used to when they were married, almost as if she is flirting with him. Is she? He cannot say, as after she became aware of his infidelity and was bracing herself to declare their marriage over, she maintained such a façade of normality that no-one, not even the children, suspected the impending split. He wonders if her present playfulness is just another front.

It forces him to contemplate what he really wants, as he cleans up the barbecue while Nadia and the girls clear the table and wash-up.

He has long recognized his setting up house with Sue was a mistake.  Though he had justified his infidelity at the time as compelled by an overwhelming passion, they had quickly tired of each other once the aphrodisiac of illicit romance had been removed, and she, being ten years younger and possessing more options, had no hesitation in breaking with him after a little over a year together. Now he asks himself what had been wrong in his marriage that prompted him to become involved with another woman. And he comes to the conclusion, nothing.

There had been the usual little niggles which occur from time to time between a husband and wife, and he had found irritating her new found interest in her genealogy which prompted her to join, spend hours on the net and insist on going-on about nineteenth century branches of her family when he would have preferred to talk about other things or read his paper. But that was it! Nothing substantial! Nothing at all! What there had been on his part was merely an odd restlessness and resentment of his married-with-children domesticity, yet it is that same domesticity in which he has rejoiced over lunch.

Nadia comes back out to the balcony, where he now leans against the rail, and stands so close beside him so that he can feel the warmth of her body through their clothing. At first she announces a little brusquely that they must be on their way, as she wants to get the girls settled back in home and they have some schoolwork to do. But then she grimaces nervously and takes a sharp breath before saying, “I have a favour to ask, for Bethany’s sake.”

His first impulse is irritation. Why the hesitation? Why would he imagine that he would not do anything for Bethany, especially in the present circumstances?

But then she continues, “Like I said before, underneath she’s pretty fragile. She really needs the combined support of both mother and father. I noticed how the girls were in the restaurant last night and then over dinner today, how happy and relaxed they were, Beth especially. Would you mind ringing her a bit more often and if, at least until after the committal hearing and the trial which will probably follow, we all had a meal together once a week- sometimes here, sometimes my place, a restaurant now and then?”

It is so in accord with his own wishes that he quickly assents, but is once more annoyed by the fulsomeness of her gratitude so that he cannot resist saying emphatically, “After all, she is my daughter.”

He then scoops up the two overnight bags and carries them down the stairs. As they drive off, he waves, and as he follows the progress of the car down the street to the corner, he smiles.

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