Within My Reach
A Sapphic retelling of Jane Austen's Persuasion
Anna looped bubble-wrap around her father’s favorite sculpture: a peacock made entirely out of mirrors. The only upside of moving out of the house was the possibility that this monstrosity would never see the light again.
“Give that another layer, Anna. We can’t be too careful.” Her father, Walter Elliot, was dressed more for a working lunch at the yacht club than for helping with the packing. He turned his head as if to read the spines on the bookshelf. “Are you sure the books will be safe, left behind?”
“It would look so bare without them,” Anna said. She still couldn’t believe they had to move out of her childhood home. Her father had always been disgustingly wealthy, to the point of embarrassment. And yet it had come to this: stripping the place of their personal effects. Was Walter really worried about the books? He hadn’t opened one in years.
“And Selina said he’s a writer.”
Was Walter even listening?
Selina had been trying to soften the blow when she’d told Anna that particular detail about the new tenant. As Walter’s commercial manager, Selina had the family’s finances and reputation in mind, but she was also Anna’s godmother; she knew that Anna’s sense of fairness might have been appeased by a creative type rising to the top, ousting a father who rarely seemed worthy of his many privileges.
Walter gave an ominous hum. “Prestigious, apparently, but I’ve never heard of him.” He inspected himself in the mirror above the mantelpiece; fingered the dark hair at his temples. He looked rather like the advertisement for his beloved Chiffre Rouge watch: tan and clean-shaven, gray hairs dyed chestnut every eighth of the month, and perhaps a little Botox at the same time. Hard to be sure but, for sixty, he was awfully smooth in the forehead department.
Anna unraveled the last of the roll of bubble-wrap. To think, just yesterday she’d had her students researching the longevity of single-use-plastics, and here she was drowning in hypocrisy. She pinched a corner, eliciting a satisfying pop.
The familiar growl of her brother Max’s Audi rumbled to a stop outside.
Walter plucked a pretentious statuette from the bookcase and sighed. “I’m sure Selina did her homework, but I don’t like the sound of the man. Perhaps we should delay the move, make sure we’ve considered all our options.”
“We can’t afford to wait.” Anna looked over at him, but he wouldn’t let her catch his eye; he was gazing out at the harbor view.
Max announced his arrival: “Phillipe’s had a cancellation. Table’s ours. One o’clock!” He was dressed to the nines, and Kay followed him, in spike heels and a fresh coat of sunset-orange mani-pedi. They clearly weren’t here to wrap knickknacks and load boxes.
“Making progress?” Max pushed sunglasses worth more than a week’s groceries up into his coiffed blond hair, then went through to the open-plan kitchen.
Kay kissed Walter on the cheek. “You’ve clearly earned a break.”
Anna tore the last tape off the roll, and Kay plucked a new roll of tape from the sideboard.
She was Max’s personal assistant, and had a knack for bringing out the worst in both him and Walter, but she passed Anna the tape.
“Thank you.” Anna twisted it onto the dispenser.
“There’s not much left here, is there?” Walter glanced around the room, unseeing.
“Nothing important.” Max pushed a glass into the ice-dispenser. Anna looked up at the sharp clink and crack, only to see him stroking the fridge. “Can we leave instructions for the ice maker? Selina didn’t just take their references without doing some, you know, digging, right?”
“She sent me their deets.” Kay perched on a bar stool, pulling out her phone. “Selina asked me to do keys and what-not, since she’ll be in Australia then.”
Anna slid the tape-dispenser along the seam in the wrapping.
“Can’t hurt to Google him.” Max peered over Kay’s shoulder. “Adam La…fo-lu-ah.”
On hearing the name, Anna’s hand slipped. The razor edge of the dispenser grazed the skin off her knuckle.
No one noticed her hiss. They were all crowded around Kay’s phone.
“This is Selina’s idea of a reputable tenant?” Walter turned away.
Max tore the phone out of Kay’s hand. “A journalist. What is Selina thinking?”
“She did say he was famous.” Kay stood up, but didn’t reach for her phone.
Anna slid down to sit on the floor. Adam Lafolua!
“Well I’ve never heard of him.” Max pawed at the screen. “Maybe it’s his wife who’s famous. She’s kind of hot. Sophia Wentworth. Sounds familiar.”
“I’m calling Selina. We can’t have this.” Walter noticed Anna staring at him. “Don’t give me that look, Anna. This is my business. I’m a good judge of character—of a tenant. It’s not what you think.”
Did he actually think she was shocked by his barely-veiled racism? As if that could elicit the
lung-shrinking, world-spinning gut-punch Max had just landed.
And Max had no idea.
Thank God, Max had no idea.
“Wentworth. Wentworth. Where do I know that name from?” He let Kay take her phone back.
“It’ll come to you when you’re thinking of something else. Like which wine to pair with lunch?”
“Phillipe’s!” Max dashed past Anna and out of the room. She shrouded the mirrored head of the statue and strangled it with tape.
Into his phone, Walter all-but shouted at poor Selina. “This La-la fellow just won’t do. It doesn’t look right. I don’t like it. Call me when you get this.” He gave a heavy sigh.
Max barreled back in. “Wentworth was the name of that—that piece of work.” He turned to Anna. “That chick you… you know.”
“Sophia Wentworth?” Kay looked properly impressed.
“No, no.” Anna found her voice. “Not Sophia.”
“Right then.” Walter buttoned his jacket with a flourish. “Selina will sort it. I have nothing more to say about any of them.”
With that, thank heaven, they left Anna in peace.
Well, maybe not peace, per se. Typing the first four letters of Frida’s handle was enough: the rest appeared.
A mosaic of photos filled the screen. Frida’s eye, her sense with a camera, was a kind of alchemy Anna had never understood. A picture of a street—could be anywhere in the world—scuffed shoes, bony ankles, the hem of jeans, pale and frayed in the foreground, and crumbling pavement in sharp focus, the traffic behind, a blur of color.
The next photo was a pattern, like a chevron. Anna tilted her head. The shapes became seats—on an airplane, all the headrests, slightly off-set by the angle of the photo, the light flat and warm.
Frida was flying… somewhere. Anna flicked her thumb down, pleading with Instagram and
God for an update, a location, even an airline.
She threw her phone aside and dove at the polished bronze. One layer of bubble wrap and
the occasional strategically-placed square of cardboard ought to do it. Her father didn’t trust the moving company to handle his prized collection. Being particular—nay, pedantic—about the superiority of every one of his possessions was the price his ego required. Similarly, he would enjoy laying a complaint if anything got damaged.
Anna trussed up an atrocious glass piece and then threw the tape across the room. Next, she needed to tackle all the detritus in the backs of the cupboards.
It felt like a good thing, to be going through everything, sorting out their lives, what was worth holding on to and what they were better off without.
Oh, if only it were that easy.
She didn’t even know if Frida was coming back to New Zealand. Just the merest possibility had her spinning. And at the same time, somehow, lent brutal clarity: Anna needed a change. And perhaps a personality transplant too.
Unfortunately, the living room cupboards didn’t serve up the transformation she longed for. The next door revealed a hoard of thick old photo albums with marbled plastic covers.
Her phone buzzed. A text message from her sister, Meredith: ‘The nanny’s been gone two days. I’m tearing my hair out. She’s spoiled the boys rotten. They’re unbearable.’
Waiting for the inevitable follow-up message, Anna flicked across to Instagram. Frida’s profile picture was a cropped bit of an expressionist painting, a goat clutching at a violin.
Another message from Mere arrived. ‘You teachers have it so good. Six weeks vacation? What I’d do to have that much time entirely to myself!’
Anna wrote, ‘I do have a bit of work to do, but I’d love to hang out with the boys. Any time you like. Did you get the results of your blood tests? How are you feeling?’
She hit send and looked around the living room, at the chaos of crumpled lists and boxes, half-finished drinks and empty rolls of tape.
After this cupboard she’d start tidying up. There was a photo box hiding behind the albums. No one had put photos in albums since Mom had died. This box might contain anything. Full of equal parts curiosity and dread, Anna pulled it into the light.
Mere’s answer lit up the phone screen. ‘I feel dreadful. But the tests told them nothing. I’m losing all faith in the medical profession.’
‘I can come stay for a few days, keep the boys out of your hair so you can rest,” Anna wrote, then deleted the offer. And rewrote it. Twice.
Her nephews would be happy to see her. She wouldn’t be in everyone’s way. She wouldn’t have to pretend to care that Kay’s purse was real Prada, or that Max had met some fabulous potential investor, or that Walter was having lunch with the mayor. Anna wouldn’t rain on anyone’s parade at Mere’s.
Pressing send, she slipped the lid off the photo box. Memories spat in her face. These were all hers… and Frida’s. Anna felt the crisp edges of the prints, flicking through, immediately breathless. There was one of her laughing—she looked so young! In another she was reading, so serious, but there was something else there, a contentedness, a hopefulness, a sense of safety, of belonging.
The next photo was the two of them together. Frida had taken it with an elaborate professional camera not designed for selfies, her tanned arm flexed and outstretched, filling the corner of the frame. Anna remembered the exact moment… too clearly. The scent of her. The warmth. The texture of her hair. The taste of her skin, her lips, her neck. In the picture, Frida was looking at Anna, watching her with an expression like awe on her face.
She’d been utterly lost. They both had been. Exquisitely happy.
A few of these Anna had taken, but all of them they’d developed together in the downstairs bathroom, sitting on the cold tiles, their legs entwined in the dark. The heat of Frida’s skin, the delicious ache of longing, the thrill of just watching her stand up from the floor, her disheveled skirt and shirt falling almost back into place. Almost, but not quite. Long legs, thick thighs and defined calf muscles, a triangle of soft stomach, Anna hadn’t been able to look away.
“This is good practice, for hotel bathrooms,” Frida had said, nudging at the photo developing in the bathroom sink. “So long as they don’t have automated lights on sensors.”
“I doubt any hotel we can afford will have automated anything.” Anna had leaned back against the tub, watching Frida tuck the toe of one foot under the arch of the other: the muscle flexing in her thigh, the shadow of her skirt. Anna knew Frida’s body probably better than her own at that point. Every bit of it, she’d studied and adored.
“If we go to Jakarta, we can stay on Sophie’s couch. They’re all set up there. Adam’s doing
some climate change piece, guest lecturing at the university on the side. But cheap flights to
Southeast Asia come up pretty regularly. It’s the obvious place to start.”
Anna hadn’t known how they’d pay for any of it, but dreams wouldn’t add fifty cents to her student loan.
“We’ll find a cheap flat, live on noodles. And for dessert…” Frida ran her foot up over Anna’s knee, then sank back to the floor. Her warm, smooth skin, her certainty; it had all seemed possible.
The phone rang, calling Anna back to the present, the packing, the mess. It was Selina.
“How’s Australia?” said Anna, turning the photos face-down, hoping Selina wouldn’t notice any strain in Anna’s voice.
But there was handwriting on the back of the photo.
“I just talked to Walter,” Selina said. “The apartment fell through.”
“What?” But the house was already promised to tenants. Frida’s family, of all tenants. Frida already thought the worst of the lot of them. And now… “What are we going to do?”
“It’s alright. I remembered your idea about staying on the boat.”
“I was kidding.” Maybe Anna could stay there by herself. Let Dad and Max do what they liked.
“Walter took it very seriously.”
“He’s considering living on the boat?”
“Not considering. Decided.”
“Are you serious?”
“Your berth is small, I know, but there are worse places to spend the summer.”
“Just think of the money saved.”
Selina was right. Selina often was. She was Anna’s godmother, her most trusted friend, and one of the few people who knew how to manage Walter Elliot. The only other, Anna’s mother, had died nine years ago. The man sorely needed managing.
“The Lafolua’s lease is just for three months. And you only have to sleep on the boat. Great walks around the harbor front. Just think.” Selina went on about the perks of living at the marina.
Anna had offered to stay with Meredith, to help with the boys. She couldn’t tell Selina that, though. Selina wouldn’t like that at all. She’d say Meredith was taking advantage of Anna, hijacking a well-earned summer vacation.
But Selina was in Australia for the next three weeks. Anna could probably get away with a little doormat-ish behavior. “Don’t worry about me, Selina. Have a gorgeous trip, okay?”
Anna ended the call and Instagram filled her phone screen.
There was a new photo on Frida’s feed. A bright grassy slope, green and yellow, rising steep in front of the photographer, and up above her a gnarly tree with gray-green leaves and bright bursts of red flowers.
A pohutukawa tree. There was no mistaking it. Frida was back in New Zealand.
Anna put her phone down on the floor, pushing it away from her. Without thought, she
turned the old photo around to read what was written on the back.
From the moment we met, totally yours, FW.
Eight years ago…
Anna was just beginning to get the hang of making candy floss: the twirl of the stick, the rhythm and speed necessary to collect wispy threads of spun sugar into a bundle which, en masse, eventually, began to look pink.
A tendril caught the breeze, dancing off and away. Anna watched it flutter out from under the awning of her stall at the church fair. It landed in the sun-streaked hair of a woman whose face was hidden almost entirely behind an enormous camera.
Anna pointed to the candy floss in her hair and tried to remember the name of the vicar’s sister, whom she’d said would be taking photos for the paper. “You have, um…”
The camera flashed right at Anna.
The photographer lifted her face from the camera and smiled. A smile that made Anna forget the candy floss, the stick in her hand, the line of people waiting, the hot machine—until it singed her elbow. She snatched her arm back from the rim.
“You alright?” The photographer let her camera drop, and it hung by the strap around her neck. She took the stick of candy floss from Anna’s hand and passed it to the person at the front of the line.
“It’s fine,” Anna lied, inspecting the back of her arm as best she could. There was a pink stripe above her elbow.
“Mona!” The photographer called out to the vicar. “Where’s the first aid?”
The vicar rushed over.
“Are candy floss burns on the Health and Safety plan?” the photographer teased.
“It’s just a tiny—”
The photographer put her cool fingers to Anna’s skin, stealing her voice.
“Let me take over,” Mona said. “The church freezer is all meals for the sick. Frida, take her up to the house and find some ice, will you?”
Mona gave her sister a look, almost a warning. Anna didn’t know what to make of it.
In Mona’s kitchen, water splattered out of the sink, painting dark marks on Anna’s t-shirt. But the cold was sweet relief. Frida put her camera on top of the microwave and threw open the freezer. “Why is she freezing bread crusts?”
Anna laughed, suddenly nervous. Mona’s kitchen seemed too small for them both. Frida twisted a tray of ice cubes and Anna caught a whiff of her shampoo, like sour apples, fresh and bright. Crick-crack went the ice. “Bags, bags, wherefore art thou? Ah ha!” Frida plucked a scrunched shopping bag from behind a cupboard. “Ice baby. Too cold.” Frida knotted the bag and handed it to Anna.
“Thanks.” The shock of cold sent shivers head to toe. Frida was watching her: dark eyes daring, full lips turned out in concern or curiosity or something else—but that was probably wishful thinking.
Being out was fairly new for Anna, but it had made such a difference, such a profound change in her very experience of the world. A couple of months ago she could have stood here and told herself this was nothing. Not anymore; this was chemistry, pure and simple.
“Does that help?” Frida stepped back. Maybe she too was feeling the proximity.
“Sorry I surprised you—if that’s why you burned yourself.”
“No, my fault for not paying attention,” said Anna.
“I should have asked permission to take the picture.”
“Mona warned us you’d be taking photos.”
“You just looked so… avid?”
“Intent. Serious—watching the candy floss.”
“Well, it’s a serious business.” Anna felt bold, as if she were in costume, playing a part, or in a dream: she felt braver than in real life. Except this was real.
“Wanna see your photo?” Frida grabbed the camera. “See? You’re so…”
“That’s the candy floss.”
Frida cocked her head to the side, eyes full of questions. “So, do you… I mean are you a regular at Mona’s church?”
“I help with the youth group.”
“Oh, so you’re like serious?”
“I’m training to be a teacher, so, good practice, I guess,” said Anna.
“Not that there’s anything wrong with being serious.”
“Mona’s serious,” said Frida.
“I’m not that serious.”
Frida blushed and gave a nod. “How’s the burn?”
“Numb. How long has it been?”
“Like five minutes.”
The sounds of the fair, just down the hill, wafted up through the garden and only made the kitchen feel more intimate.
“Which newspaper do you work for?” Anna said.
“I freelance. But I’m still a student. Fine Arts. And you’re at teacher’s college, you said. Which building is that in?”
“It’s a separate campus, but I have a couple of lectures up at the university. I’m playing catch-up. It’s a long story.”
“We have… ten, fifteen minutes.”
“Oh. Well then,” Anna hesitated. She was getting better at saying it. “I took some time off last year. My Mom died, so…”
“Oh shit, sorry. Right, fair enough.”
“It wasn’t a surprise or anything. Or maybe it’s always a surprise, even if you know it’s coming. But Mona’s helped a lot.”
“And then she roped you into volunteering?”
“No, Mom used to come here, used to bring me along.”
“You buy into all this then? Think she was onto something?” said Frida.
“It seems to help, so I’m willing to take the risk that it’s not all myths and legends.”
“When you put it like that…”
“You don’t buy it?”
“No, but Mona is more like a Mom to me than a sister, and if something happened to her… I might feel differently.”
The burn flared again and Anna twisted herself in a knot to look at it.
“A bit, but I think the ice has probably done its job. And Mona must have a hundred other things to do—I kinda dropped her in it.”
“Ah, she loves it,” said Frida.
No doubt about that. Hours later, packing down the stalls of the fair, Mona was still smiling, energetic, directing volunteers to pick up this and fold that and put those under the stairs.
“How many?” Mona sidled up to Anna, who was counting marquee poles.
Mona wrote on her clipboard. “How’s the burn?”
“Fine. Frida found me some ice, so…”
“But did she refill the tray?”
“I don’t… no, I don’t think she did.”
“Too busy flirting?”
Anna laughed, suddenly self-conscious.
“She asked me if you were…” the vicar dropped her voice. Mona didn’t have an issue, but the same could not safely be said of everyone in the parish. “I didn’t want to break your confidence.”
Mona smiled. “She won’t refill your ice trays, so consider yourself warned.”
This chapter was first published in Within My Reach by Amy Blythe.
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