It’s half an hour later when Elle dumps a soft-serve ice cream, served in a plastic cup with a plastic spoon and hot fudge sauce in front of him. Dad rubs his hands together comically and then glances at hers.
“What, you didn’t get one for yourself?”
“I don’t eat dairy. “ But she did show him the juice she’d picked up. The fast-food joint Dad had told her to pull into was open twenty-four hours, and suitably smelly inside. The register was manned by a bored-looking teenager who was not paid anywhere near enough to care about thirty-something hauling a one-legged sixty-something while wearing a suit jacket over her singlet despite the strange picture the two of them surely painted. The overhead lights cast a faint blue glow, and their reflections prevented them from getting a good look out the window. The table they were now sitting at had large red cushioned seats and a brown plastic table with a veneer of wood atop it.
“Well, I’m going to enjoy my ice cream.” She slid across from him, and shook her head.
“Do you have any idea how much bacteria is in those things?”
“Of all the things that could possibly kill me, the soft serve is not the one I’m worried about,” Dad replies around his spoon. Elle has to admit if being pushed off two cliffs and a mezzanine, a plane crash, and being shot at didn’t kill him...
“You’re not too good for fast food ice cream?” She asked, tone mocking.
“No one is too good for ice cream.” Dad counsels, “Except you.”
“Whatever, Daddy. Hey - did you see what Karl’s calling a beard?”
“Hold that thought, I’m not done parenting you yet.”
“I’m thirty-six, I don’t need parenting.”
“Mmhm. That’s why you ran into the ocean.”
“It was a moment of madness!”
“Last time I checked I was still your father so be quiet and drink your juice. I have three more items on my Dad Agenda.”
“Your Dad Agenda? Didn’t you just get at least six months out of parenting out of that?”
“I have ten years worth of pent up parenting urges. Humour me.”
“Fine. Go for your life.” Elle said, raising her straw to her mouth for a sip of pre-packaged orange juice. It tastes like not enough water went into the cordial.
“Okay. Item one. You need to make Terese like you.”
“Really. Like it or not, Terese is my wife, and she’s going to be my wife for the rest of my life so you need to be getting along with her.”
“I’ve been trying. I don’t think she’s that interested in me.”
“Gee Elle, wonder why that would be.” He said sarcastically. Rolling her eyes, she tucked her straw into her mouth and tried to take a sarcastic sip of juice...Whatever that sounded like.
“Honestly, what’s the big deal? You meddle in other people's relationships all the time and she still likes you. For some reason.”
“They expect it of me. You haven’t exactly been making a great case for yourself, showing up and lounging around like you own the place, eating all the snacks in the house, causing problems with the tab at Lassiters and fighting with Harlow.”
“Hey, that thing at Lassiters was a little joke! Remember when I first arrived and -”
“I know that! I also know that you have qualities beyond being a scheming little wedding ruiner but she doesn’t know you like I do Elle. And unless you change, she never will.” He settled back and raked his eyes over her in that unsettling way he often does when he’s about to say something that he knows you won’t like to hear. “I know that you’re upset things didn’t work out with Rebecca.”
“I thought you two were going to make it.” She admitted, “You were in love when I left, then like a year later you’re in a coma, then you’re divorced and Andrew has epilepsy.”
“It was a tough couple of years.” Dad swirled his spoon in the soft serve and gazed at her thoughtfully. Elle tilted her head and studied him intensely. The downturn of his lips, the light catching on his pinkie ring and his plain silver cufflinks. Rebecca had never given her a reason as to why she’d peaced out so close to the attempt on his life other than it ‘wasn’t working and that he wasn’t the man she fell in love with anymore’ - which yeah. Duh. The man she’d fallen in love with hadn’t been real, an illusion cast by sunlight shining through the hollow centre of a man who was a stranger in his own body.
The real Dad, the one Elle knew better than anyone else was not easy to love. She’d assumed Rebecca would have figured out exactly who he was when he cheated on her. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen him lie to peoples face but it was the one that stung worse than any other. Okay, yes, him stealing her big story after she left The Erinsborough News had been a massive kick in the teeth but she could anticipate him doing things like that. She could never have anticipated him cheating with Kirsten Gannon of all people. She tried to catch his eye -
“You cheated on her again, didn’t you?” Rather than respond verbally, he just nodded, having the decency at least to look ashamed of his actions. “Why?”
“I...Didn’t think I had any choice.”
“Wha…” She half asks, shrugging her shoulders and imploring him to continue.
“I loved Rebecca.” Dad defends, “But I was…” He looks away from her, up to the roof and tilts his head side to side trying to come up with an answer. “Embezzling is such an ugly word. I was directing money away from Lassiters. She...Diana... found out, trying to dig myself out of the hole I agreed to sleep with her to form an alliance against your great aunt.”
“Rosemary?” Weird choice to make - As far as she knew in recent history Rosemary was all about keeping family in the business. Hence hiring Aunty Lucy and not firing Dad over his many, many indiscretions.
“Hm. It er...Well, it all blew up in my face when I got pushed off the mezzanine.”
“By Diana.” She says, finally. Something here is not right, but she wouldn’t even know where to begin to look for the truth. Maybe she doesn’t want to know the truth - there are very few people Dad would lie to cover for. Declan wasn’t one of them so he certainly didn’t do it. And Rebecca...She’d never push anyone off a mezzanine. Violence wasn’t her nature. So. Andrew? Sure - Him and Dad hadn’t been on great terms but that didn’t make him a murderer. Kate? Dad’d lie for her. He’d lie for any of his kids if he thought it would help, probably even RobSquared if he really needed it. He didn’t delight in his children being miserable, he’d never been that kind of parent. Lots of the times he had made her miserable had been misguided attempts to make her happy.
So, Kate or Andrew. She didn’t like either for it. Someone else? But then again she’s probably just thinking too much about it. It’s been a long, damp evening and her Dad-reading skills were about ten years out of date. He’d just tell her.
“Apparently I was arguing with her before I was pushed, and Andrew told me she was hiring a hitman to take me out. So.”
“It would make sense that it was her.”
“Well, the other suspects were my son, my stepson and my wife. And Kate said Rebecca was with her, Andrew would never and Declan...”
“He had a baby to look after.” India, Riley’s niece and Bridget’s daughter. As far as Elle knows, Riley has never met the child who Rebecca has proudly shared photos of with her. The spitting image of her mother, thick dark curls and the sweetest toothy grin.
“Hm.” Dad agrees.
“So, you cheated but not because you were in love with someone else, or because you were just toying with her.”
“Yes.” He confirmed. Elle lay her palms face down on the counter, which is slightly sticky from whatever it is that they use to clean them. Of course, she could get angry with Dad about his failed marriage. She had been, then, and spitefully decided not to return for a visit she’d been planning to meet Andrew. With time and space, she can see that the only person she’d hurt by doing that was herself, and Andrew. Forgiving Dad is an impulse. It happens without her consent no matter what he does. He has an endless supply of second chances from her, and he always would. It’s a defence mechanism of sorts, it had to be. There have been plenty of times in her life when she’s thought that she’d have been better off without Dad, or with a different Dad. But the truth was this. She loved him, and life is so unbearably short.
“Why tell me now?” She questions, “Seems like all of this might have been something you’d have liked to tell me way back when. Instead of leaving Andrew to fill in the blanks for me a month later. You know, I might have liked the chance to fly in and be there for you.”
“Oh, Elle. It’s good you weren’t there. You’d have disowned me long before I was pushed, and you didn’t need to see me like that...I wish Andrew hadn’t. I was wearing one of those braces they had Cameron in, that you hate. It’s better you were in New York.”
“Okay, how about when you decided to keep having cancer from me?”
“I didn’t want you to worry! Or fuss. Which is what you would have done, don’t deny it.” He raised his eyebrows, daring her to disagree, and she can’t. Ultimately, she had decided to cancel her trip in to see him, because...She hadn’t wanted to see him unwell. She’d seen him dying before and didn’t particularly desire to see that again if he wasn’t really. There’s only so many times a person can see their parent dying and Elle has reached her quota. She didn’t care about his financial crimes. Barely even rated on her morality scale. (So long as it’s not her he’s stealing from, of course) She’s investigated enough businesses to know that most of them were doing it in some capacity or other and Dad probably just had the misfortune of being caught.
“Alright. What about when you were on trial for murder? Didn’t think to pick up the phone and go ‘Hey Elle...In a spot of trouble...Can you help me out?”
“You didn’t want to help me when I was in trouble over the development!”
“Well, you actually did that!”
“And what would you have done from the middle of a war zone anyway? Not like you could leave - or had constant access to the rest of the world.” Elle sighed and scrunched up her nose. This is not the time or the place for a fight about being left out of Dad’s major life events.
“As far as the affair goes at least...I forgive you, but if I ever even have an inkling you’ve been unfaithful to your new wife then I swear, I swear that I will make what RobRob did to you seem like child's play.” And Dad knows, he knows what Elle did to him when he broke up her relationship with Dylan in the throes of his illness. He knows what Elle did to Max Hoyland when he struck Cam with his car. Unlike Rob, she’s perfectly capable of making good on her threats and she doesn’t need to put on a great big show and dance about it...Though it does help.
“If I ever cheat on Terese then you have my permission.” He said, his eyes level with hers. “I love her, Elle. I love her so much that I was prepared to let her go. How often can you say that about me.”
“Never.” She replied, thinking about Dad’s downright embarrassing attempts to curry favour with Rebecca after the affair with Kirsten came out - despite their combined efforts to keep it under wraps. “Please promise me one thing, and I will promise you that I will make a serious attempt to get on your wife's good side.”
“Don’t do to her what you did to Rebecca. Just let her go if it comes to that. Just let it all slide away.”
“You don’t expect me to fight for my marriage? You know that’s not me.”
“I mean don’t follow her around, buying her things she doesn’t want, harassing, stalking and slandering anyone she’s interested in after you. Please, Dad.”
“It won’t come to that.” He says, confidently, “But I promise. Now, will you please do your best to make peace with Terese?”
“Alright. Fine. What do you suggest I do to make her like me?”
“Try being respectful, for once?”
“I am respectful.”
“Darling you’re a lot of things, respectful isn’t one of them. Stop being such a journalist, be honest about why you decided to ruin her wedding and apologize. I mean that. Apologize.”
“I hate apologizing.”
“So do I but I want the two of you to be at the very least friendly before you go back to New York. I can’t be happy if my wife and my baby girl hate one another, can I?” He asked, punctuating his point with the plastic spoon. Elle isn’t going back to New York, but now is not the time to be bringing this up with him.
“Leave it with me.” She sighed, leaning her elbow on the table then putting her chin on her elbow.
“Okay, next on my list. You also need to have a chat with Harlow and -”
“Apologize. I know.”
“I was actually going to say tell her about Cam and Rob as you knew them.”
“There’s nothing I can tell her about Psycho Rob she can’t figure out for herself.”
“Then talk about Cam. She wants to know about him, and you’re the only one in a position to tell her. And...You’re still Rob’s triplet. You have insight into him no one else does you’re the one who can make her take my warnings about him seriously.”
“Okay. One aunty niece chat. Coming right up.”
“She does like you, Elle. She was very upset that she hurt you.”
“She seems the sort.” It comes out sarcastic but she doesn’t mean for it to.
“Be nice. She’s just a kid with an evil father. You should know a bit about that.”
“Please. You’re not evil. I’ve seen evil and you, Daddy, are just a suburban businessman. Small potatoes.”
“I hope that was a compliment.” She used her pointer finger to move her straw around in a circle and thought about Harlow, and about the fact that Rob had a daughter. And Cam would never have kids, not unless some random girlfriend showed up with a child and she knew that Cam was so careful that there was next to no chance of that.
“Can I see the picture that her mother sent you of her and Rob?” She asked, on a whim.
“Think I might have made a mistake about which of my sons it is?” Dad asked and then fished his phone out of his pants pocket. He spent a moment tapping the screen with a concerned look on his face before setting it down in front of her. On the screen is a picture of one of her brothers. He’s smiling for the camera, one arm extended, holding it in front of him. Wide eyes, high cheekbones, and a freckle just above his top lip. The other is draped around the shoulders of a much older woman with peroxide blonde hair and a wide, dangerous-looking smile. She doesn’t need to check his arm to know that it’s Robert - She can just tell. Everything about it screams Rob. The pose, the short and spiked hair, the cameo print jacket ...All of it. He looks agonisingly like her brother, and he looks very, very young.
“I was kind of hoping that it’d be Cam.” She admitted with a sigh. Using two fingers, she zoomed in enough to cut Prue Wallace out and focus just on her brother. Not that she doubted Dad’s ability to spot the lack of mole on his forearm - he’d never make that mistake again.
“I know. Me too.”
“He looks like a child.”
“Do you recognize where the picture was taken?” Dad asked, clearly fishing for information for some agenda of his or other. Elle is beyond caring about that sort of thing, she’s an adult now and it’s not like he’s going to tattle on her to Mum for underage drinking.
“Yeah, I do. That’s an old haunt of mine and Cam’s. Beer was cheap, I.D checking was lax and the pool table was level. What else did a couple of ratbags need in a bar?” Cam used to think that the beer was watered down, and complain that he couldn’t get the smell of smoke out of his hair for days afterwards. Not that it ever stopped him going there, of course. She doesn’t remember if they ever brought Rob along with them. He wasn’t into the whole underage drinking scene - He got his kicks handing them over to Mum when he could catch them in the act so the idea of him going out to a bar is almost too ridiculous for her to consider if not for the fact that she knew he had gone with them to a couple. He’d asked if they’d take him with them and not wanting to cause trouble, she and Cam had agreed on the condition that he let them do the talking. So he knew how to get there, and how to get in. But this clearly wasn’t a time he’d gone with them. He strained her eyes on the pool table in the background, trying to see if Cam was there but she couldn’t be sure. The only clue she did see as to when exactly the photo was taken was the television in the background playing the news but it’s too out of focus for her to tell what’s on display.
“You drank cheap beer?” Dad asked, and when she looked up he was smiling wolfishly. “Cam I can imagine but you always seemed like a champagne girl.”
“Any shelter in a storm.” She replied, slightly bemused. “I don’t know why Rob wouldn’t have mentioned her to us.”
“Prue? Why would he tell you?”
“Losing his V-card at fifteen? Cam didn’t lose his for another year after that. I know enough about Rob to know he’d be lording that over him for the rest of his life.”
“Maybe he just wanted to keep it to himself.”
“Alright, your theory?”
“I don’t have one. Not enough information. Anyway, shouldn't you be angry about some twenty-something woman taking advantage of your teenage son?”
“Oh, I’m furious.” Dad confirmed, “But there’s no point in taking that out on Harlow.” Then, he gave her a knowing look through his eyebrows to punctuate his point.
“I am not taking anything out on Harlow.”
“I like Harlow!” She exclaimed, causing the person manning the counter to glance at them quizzically. She felt herself blush and looked down at her hands awkwardly before continuing. “She’s a good kid.”
“She is. A really good kid. Which is why you need to behave yourself around her. No calling him ‘Psycho Rob’ or any of those other unkind things you call him.”
“Not even RobRob?”
“Not even RobRob.”
“Ugh, you’re taking this parenting stuff for real.” She sighed. “Fine, I’ll drop the nicknames around her.”
“Excellent. Next on my list is - Riley.”
“Oh, God.” She said, wrinkling up her nose.
“Well? Anything to report? Am I going to get to walk at least one of my daughters down the aisle in this lifetime?” He asked, giving her a somewhat imploring look. Elle just sighed and leaned over her drink to suck the last of the juice and melted ice cubes.
“There’s nothing to report. He took the contract and went back to the Middle East.” And that was that. Their on again off again relationship was off again.
“I never thought you’d find someone as dedicated to their work as you are,” Dad remarked.
“And I never thought you’d find someone who loved Lassiters as much as you.”
“So we’ve both found the one, then.”
“Shut up, it’s not like that.” She grumbled. “If I have a ‘the One’ it’s not some surfer bum from Oakey.”
“Don’t talk about my future son-in-law like that.” He scolded, waving his spoon around again to punctuate his words. “He will come back to you if he loves you.”
“I know he loves me. He’s loved me since the roof collapsed. The problem is me, and that I told him to go back on contract.”
“Oh-Kay. You didn’t want him to do that so why?” She let out a long sigh and placed her arms on the counter, before leaning on them. Her hair fell around her face in messy, sandy curtains.
“Because. Because I love him, and I want him to be happy.”
“And he won’t be happy with you? Elle, darling, you’re doing it again.”
“Sabotaging your happiness. Just like you did with Lucas and Oliver. Some poor bloke adores you, and you keep finding excuses to fob him off. You do, believe it or not, deserve to be happy.”
“So you’re team Riley?”
“Actually, Harlow tells me that these days the kids make a portmanteau of your names.”
“What’s you and your wife? Traul?”
“My wife’s name is Terese, and I prefer praise.”
“So what would Riley and I be, since you’re so hip with the kids?”
“Rilelle? Rucinda? Luley? Elly?”
“Oh, the first one. The second is what Ian used to call me. Gross.”
“I thought you kids liked Ian?”
“Sure...When Cam is distracting him so Rob and I can steal his whiskey.” Dad snorted and rolled his eyes affectionately. “Tell me. What makes you so fond of him and not Harlow’s boyfriend?” Dad pursed his lips then spoke -
“He saved your life, and he makes you laugh. What else could I possibly ask of him to prove he loves you? Donate a lung or something? So. Why are you not team Riley?”
“Because. He’s got a chance to be normal and live a normal life. When people spend too much time with us Robinsons...They just get...Warped.”
“Andrew was a normal kid until he moved in with you.”
“Your brother's neurological condition is not my fault.”
“No, but he wouldn’t have it if he hadn’t come here. And in future, when you want to speak to me don’t use him as a go-between.”
“Why else would he have called me this afternoon at three am Berlin time if not for you trying to find me?”
“At three am Berlin time I was in the car with Harlow heading to the prison. I didn’t ask him to call you.”
“Then what was he calling about?”
“As if I’d know. I don’t understand half the things that go through that boy's head.”
“Huh. Well, if it was important he’d have left a voice mail. I’ll catch up with him tomorrow.”
“Who else has been warped by us?” Dad asked, leaning behind him to dump his empty cup into the garbage.
“Oliver. Lyn. Susan Kennedy. Dylan. Ned. Lucas was normal until he started going out with me, then he developed a gambling addiction.”
“Lucas’s gambling addiction was not your fault. Elle, let me tell you something, man to daughter.”
“There are two types of people in this world. People who have potential, and people who don’t. All of those people only reached their truest potential because we pushed them to it. Good, or bad.”
“So, your wi...Terese. She has potential.”
“Of course. When she arrived here, trapped in her marriage with that unfaithful lump Brad she was a smart, capable businesswoman with fire but she didn’t know how to use it in a way that could bring a man to his knees...Now she’s a ruthless, considered, tactical businesswoman who fights with the big boys. You think she’d ever have found someone to nurture that spirit in a...Surfer bum? No, of course not. He’d have seen that spark in her and stamped it out. She didn’t need that. She needed someone to hate, who could teach her to embrace volatility.”
“And hate is just love without vulnerability.”
“Exactly.” While she did find it exceedingly funny that Dad insulted Brad over being unfaithful less than twenty minutes after confessing an affair to her...He had a point. “Lucas Fitzgerald has no potential. I know -” He said, raising a hand to stop her, “That you loved him. I respect that, but he doesn’t have the potential to be exceptional. He’s nice, and a good father but those qualities alone do not a brilliant man make. Riley Parker, however, has potential. I’ve read his work, I’ve seen his reporting on Channel Eight. Need I remind you that the two of you published award-winning journal articles about the ethics of true crime? When he works with you and embraces your volatility with his laid back attitude the two of you can be brilliant. Stop pushing him away, Darling. One of these days he won’t come back.”
“Does she love you?”
“No, your second wife, Beth from H.R.”
“Haha.” He scoffed, sarcasm dripping. “Yes. She does.”
“And you’re sure it’s real true love and not an elaborate ploy for your money and hotel?”
“Why is it that you automatically think any time a woman is interested in me it’s about money?” Dad asked, rolling his eyes.
“Um, because they usually are.”
“Oh, darling you wound me so. I thought they wanted my good looks and charm.”
“Yeah. Izzy and Cass were totally into your sparkling personality.”
“Yes, Terese loves me, and it’s for real. Not that I blame you for having doubts, God only knows I’ve had enough false starts.”
“I have heard the ‘fairytale ending’ speech three times already.” She concurred, “And Cass did try to make you out to be a wife-beater to the whole street. I guess what I’m trying to say is...I don’t want you to get hurt again. I want you to be happy, and with someone who knows how to weather the storm you inevitably bring into the lives of your loved ones.”
“Which is why you sent a string of assassins. So, she passes your test?”
“I guess so. Who knows Dad, maybe it is true love. But if she ever gets you sent to jail again I’ll sabotage the breaks on her car.”
“No, you won’t.”
“You always spoil my fun. Anything else on your Dad Agenda?”
“Nothing you haven’t heard before. Stop putting holes in your ears, call me more, I wish you’d choose safer stories to pursue, stop fighting with your mother...Usual Dad Stuff.”
“Well, thanks for the advice. I think.”
“Hey. What are Dad’s for?”
“What happened to you two?” Terese demanded, as she opened the passenger side door to the car, Dad’s crutches in hand.
They’d taken the long way home from the restaurant, mostly so they could scream sing some classic Taylor Swift. Dad must think there’s something wrong with her because he’d only ever done that before when he thought she needed a real, serious cheer up. But honestly? How can anyone be sad driving in a red convertible, in the middle of the night, roof down, music blaring and wind in your hair?
“We had a bit of a drive and a swim,” Dad said, cheerfully. “Elle, grab my leg won’t you?” His wife looked between the two of them, eyebrows pulled together in a frown.
“In the ocean.”
“I told you she was at the beach,” Dad replied, as the three of them went inside. Cam’s phone, now worn around her neck on a lanyard, bumps against her heart. “Why go to the beach if not to swim?”
“You hate swimming.” She says, “Too many people starring at your...Leg.”
“Should I catch a cab to Lassiters?” She asked, standing awkwardly in the door as Dad and his wife entered.
“Don’t be silly.” Terese said, “You’re family. I can make the couch up for you -”
“You don’t need to do that...I assume the linen cupboard hasn’t moved… And the bathroom..”
“I’m sure I can rustle up some clothes for you, at least.” She says, determined, and bustling away to resume her no doubt extremely motherly fussing. Dad paused at the foot of the stairs and turned to face her.
“You should keep Cam’s phone. He’d want you to have it anyway. Just promise me you won't become one of those people who sit around calling their deceased loved ones phone to hear their voicemail.”
“Don’t worry, no voice mail calling here.”
“And I mean it. I want you to talk to me about Cam, and Rob if you want. Let’s try to avoid letting it get this bad again, shall we?”
“Yeah. Hey, Dad?”
“Hm?” He asked, pausing now a few steps up. Terese stood at the top of the stairs holding the blankets and pillows.
“As far as Dads go...You haven’t been a total failure. I mean, yeah, Rob’s a total psycho, and sometimes you’re more like my enemy than my parent but Andrew and I...We turned out just fine. So cut yourself a bit of slack now and again.”
“Thanks, LucyTwo.” He said, “Sleep tight.”