Grace in the Shadows

By Christine Dillon

Religion & spirituality, Women's fiction, General fiction

Paperback, eBook

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6 mins



Late 1960s

Sydney, Australia

It was love at first sight. And second. And third. Each memory was a lustrous pink pearl from a necklace she now kept locked away. Out of sight but not entirely out of mind. The first pearl was their first meeting. She pressed so close to the glass that it fogged, blurring the outline of the pink-wrapped bundle beyond. Years of pestering her mother and now the day had come. She had a baby sister. Finally. She hopped on the spot. As though her sister read her mind, the tiny eyes snapped open and the little rosebud mouth opened in a yawn. She liked to think that, even then, her sister was seeking her out through the glass separating them. The second pearl was the memory of her mother as she cradled the baby close and enclosed her in love. Had Mum held her the same way? Like she was the most precious baby in the whole world? Her sister latched on and sucked. She could almost see her growing. She hugged her arms around her waist. Did her mum remember she had an almost eleven-year-old daughter, or was she too cocooned with the baby? She leaned forward. “Do you think I’ll ever have a baby?” Her mother smiled. “Probably—most girls do. But don’t grow up too quickly. I want my daughters with me as long as possible.” It was special to be wanted. Like being wrapped in her favourite mohair blanket on a winter’s evening. The third pearl was the first time she’d held her sister. The responsibility lay heavier than the child. Like she held a delicate china figurine. She gazed down. Oh, the little cutie-pie. Solemn dark blue eyes stared back at her. What did they see? An older sister who already adored her? No kid would ever bully her sister. She’d be a hovering presence. A wall of protection. A hero. The subsequent years had added more pearls. Creamy, dreamy memories. Times that became her only joys in the struggle wearing her down. One pearl she remembered far too often. It had been a blazing beauty of an autumn. Bright blue skies, crisp mornings, and breezes which blew the leaves in languid eddies. Her little sister swished through the fallen leaves, giggling as they crackled underfoot. She stooped down and threw armfuls of leaves into the air. They swirled around her in whirls of red, yellow, and faded brown. Oh, how she loved this little sister of hers. How could she think of leaving her? She swooped down and tickled. “Don’t, don’t,” her sister squealed. They chased each other around the trees until they were both worn out. A sunbeam sliced through the leafless branches and illuminated the toddler in a warm glow. “Look, look. The sun is shining right on me.” Her sister raised her arms above her head, tilted her face to the sun, and laughed as she twirled. Pure joy. Another pearl. Another memory to lock away.

                                                       Chapter 1

Sydney, Australia

Rachel opened one eye. The early morning light glowed around the edges of the floor-length curtains. She yawned, rolled over, and thwacked her arm against solid flesh. He groaned. “What-d-ya hitting me for?” He propped himself up on one elbow. “Trying to get my attention?” “Sorry.” She wasn’t about to tell him she’d forgotten he was there. He reached over and drew her to him. “Best night of the month.” He couldn’t come more often, or his wife would get suspicious. She had end-stage lymphoma, and he got away for three days respite. Rachel curled her lip. Rachel’s respite. Glad to be of service. “Can’t you come with me to the hotel?” He kissed her shoulder. “Not possible. I’ve got an extra shift at work.” “Why does it have to be you?” Better cover up quick, or she’d be late. She scooted away from him and grabbed her silk robe off the floor. He lunged for her. “C’mon babe. Don’t be cruel.” She batted his hand away. “I can’t miss a day.” He pouted his lips. “You work too hard.” Said the man who had a job that allowed him time off work to care for his wife. Working at David Jones wasn’t like that. There were plenty of younger women queueing for her job. Rachel slid the mirrored doors of her wardrobe to the side and took out the hanger with the crisply ironed black dress. Once in the bathroom, she turned the lock. Hot jets stung her skin as she washed her hair. As she stepped out of the shower she glimpsed herself in the mirror. Did her hips look more rounded? How was that possible with her diet and exercise regime? She blow-dried her hair and dressed. The diamond earrings had been a gift from a previous partner. She’d kept the diamonds and dumped the guy. He’d been too clingy. Rachel opened the top drawer of the bathroom cabinet and took out her make-up kit. She squinted at the mirror. Was that a faint line on her neck? A cobweb of fear brushed across her heart. She’d fought hard, but forty was around the corner. Could she keep her job if she began to look old? With swift, practiced strokes, Rachel covered her face with foundation and added mascara and eyeshadow. The lipstick must wait until after her fruit and coffee. Even without the lipstick, a young version of her mother stared back at her. Would her mother recognise her now? It had been more than twenty years. Her chest and throat tightened. How could she face her mother? Still unmarried. Sure, there’d been men, but her mother wouldn’t be impressed there’d been more than one. For Mum, life was simple. Marriage, children, and stand by your man. That was a laugh. Rachel’s first man had jumped ship right when he was most needed. She’d always intended to write and let her mother know she was safe, but it had never happened. What kind of person was she, that she’d cut herself off from her family? She’d loved them once. At least, she’d loved two out of the three. The other one she was only too glad to never see again. Rachel dabbed her nose with a tissue, careful not to smudge her make-up. Then she unlocked the bathroom door and strode back into the bedroom, banishing the ghost of her past. She walked on stockinged feet to the kitchen. If she hurried, she could finish breakfast and leave before Mike even got out of bed. After breakfast, she went back into the bathroom. Mike’s footsteps padded across the carpet, and his presence loomed at the door. Ignoring him, she outlined her lips and stretched them for the lipstick. A quick blot. Perfect. One advantage of her job was discounted make-up and plenty of free samples. Mike came into the bathroom in his towel. He knew better than to delay her now she had her lipstick in place. He patted her bottom. “Looking hot in that skirt. Tighter than before. Must be the cheesecake last night.” She stifled a harsh retort. She hadn’t been mistaken. All she had to do was look at dessert and she gained weight. Could she go to the gym more often? More often. How was that possible? She practically lived there already. * * * The train clattered into St James Station, frozen in the 1930s by the yellow and green tiled walls, curled iron balustrades, and wooden handrails. Once inside the station bathroom, she placed a hand on the wall to steady herself as she slipped off her comfortable shoes and replaced them with high heels. They tortured her feet, but heels were one of the unwritten expectations at work. She peered in the mirror. No lipstick on her teeth, and only one tiny strand of hair out of place. She tucked it back in. Perfect. Elizabeth Street was awash with people. She turned right into the flow. She wasn’t the only one dressed in David Jones black and white. The lack of colour might seem limiting, but as long as employees looked neat and professional, they could follow their own tastes in style. Rachel winced as she remembered her first job. The oil from the fish and chips shop had invaded every pore. If she’d been there any longer, she’d have turned into a blob of grease. David Jones had been on Elizabeth Street forever. It still had the original sandstone exterior which shoppers from the war years would recognise. Most of the interior was modern, but sometimes Rachel would ride up the original metal cage lifts and imagine the grandeur of past eras. She entered through the staff entrance and made her way to the beauty department. The basement and ground floor were crammed with the concessions for every major cosmetics brand. The bigger the company, the better the spot, with the biggest brands close to the entrances. She’d started with a small brand in the basement and, with hard work, had moved up to a major, international brand near the main doors. Now she could glimpse natural light instead of being buried underground. Rachel had thought she was early, but Yvonne was already laying out samples. Perhaps she should have caught the earlier train. Their manager had resigned recently and now the race was on to see who’d be promoted. Yvonne had a chance, but her toadying ways were a little too obvious. Margaret was better liked, but being married with children counted against her. The cosmetics company preferred singleness and ambition, which gave Rachel the advantage. Maybe the company would bring in someone from outside. She hoped not, because she needed the money. Rent in Sydney was high, and her current man’s guilty conscience couldn’t be relied upon to prop up her income. She’d learned to budget. A tough lesson for someone with her upbringing. There was a click of high heels behind her. Rachel spun around. “Made it,” Margaret said, breathless. “Didn’t think I would. Billy had a slight fever last night and then screamed about going to Grandma’s.” Yes, Rachel did have a chance to get the promotion. If only she had a better education. Perhaps the cosmetics company would allow her to work towards something like a business or marketing degree one evening a week. How many years would that take? Rachel unlocked the cupboard with the wedding appointment notebook. She rang the first number on the list for tomorrow. Once the calls were done, she drifted over to the next make-up concession to greet Alice, one of the few friends she’d made at work. They usually had lunch together at least once a week. “I applied for the manager’s job as you suggested,” Alice said. “Have you received a response to your application?” “No,” Rachel said. “But it’s been less than a week since the closing date.” “I thought they were in a hurry.” “Maybe, but they’ll need to narrow the possibilities down to a short-list.” Would her name be on the list?



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