It was 2am. Maggie opened her eyes and lay still in bed. She could hear her husband Ken’s even breathing. He was a great sleeper, Ken. She hoped he wouldn’t wake for at least a few hours.
Maggie got out of bed and left the bedroom, quietly closing the door behind her. She went into the laundry where she had left a large hold-all. She quickly took off her flannelette PJs, revealing the black leggings and black jersey she was wearing underneath. She took sneakers from the bag and put them on, along with a black puffer jacket. Then she took a black balaclava from the bag, considered it briefly and put it back. That was going a little too far perhaps.
Rufus bounded in, excited that someone was up in the middle of the night, wanting to play. “Go back to your basket,” she hissed. She went to the back door but he tried to follow her out, rubbing against her legs. She closed the door behind him and was about to lock it when she heard him whining and pawing at the door. He would wake the whole house if he kept that up. She opened the door and let him out. “OK, you can come with me.”
Maggie usually parked her Toyota Corona in front of the house, but last night she had made sure to park it several houses down. She didn’t think Ken had noticed; he hadn’t said anything, and neither had the boys.
She opened the car door and Rufus jumped in, then she pulled away from the kerb as slowly as she could so as not to make much noise.
Driving along, her thoughts turned to Lois, as they often did. What was she trying to prove? If Maggie said she was going to bake a cake, Lois always turned up with one that was bigger, more chocolatey and with fancier icing. If Maggie mentioned that she was going to a pilates class, she never heard the end of Lois going on about her cross fit and her pump and her kick boxing. Did the woman think she was 20 years old? Certainly, her bright pink hair was not particularly age-appropriate. And then there was the incident with the ginger crunch at the book club. Infuriating!
And since Lois had split with her husband and started using Tinder…All these dates with middle-aged men and Lois insisting on telling the book club members all the juicy details. The other book club ladies didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they lapped up the sordid details and always asked lots of questions. Most of their husbands were a little on the dull side, Maggie thought.
Although she would never have admitted it to anyone, Maggie sometimes fantasised about using Tinder herself. If Ken was no longer on the scene, she wondered if other men would still find her desirable. Not that she knew anything about using such an app. It was all about swiping right and left, she’d read somewhere. Right if you liked someone, and left if you didn’t. Or was it the other way around? You’d have to make sure you knew which one it was.
She’d heard about men using photos that were years old or had been touched up on Photoshop. Women too. She supposed it wasn’t just the men lying or exaggerating their good points. Then, when you met them for the first time, you’d be disappointed that they didn’t look as good as their picture. Now, if it was her, she’d probably use the photo that was taken eight or nine years ago at her high school reunion, where the light had been just right and she looked like Jennifer Aniston. A bit. From a certain angle, at least. But it was her best photo and hadn’t been fiddled with.
Wouldn’t it be amazing if a younger man contacted her and asked for a date. Maybe a man in his mid-forties, with a good physique and his hair gently greying at the temples. She would play hard to get at first, but would eventually allow herself to succumb to his charming seduction techniques and go back to his penthouse apartment with spectacular sea views and not a bored teenager in sight. There he would bring her champagne and strawberries, which he would place in her mouth with his own elegant fingers, before tenderly but confidently making love to her in his massive king-sized bed with the expensive one thousand thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.
Maggie looked up with a start. She was heading in the wrong direction. She did a U-turn and drove towards the town centre then took a left at the railway crossing. What was she doing imagining a date with a perfect but hypothetical man? Ridiculous! And at her age! Men like that didn’t exist anyway. It was something else she could blame on Lois, putting ideas into her head.
She focused on the road. It was a still night and there was little traffic. About a mile further on she came to a quiet suburban street and parked outside a brick house.
“You’ll have to stay here,” she told Rufus, “I don’t want you getting in the way. I’ll be back soon.”
She put her cellphone on vibrate. She was unlikely to get any calls at this time of night, unless Ken woke up and started looking for her, but she didn’t want to take any chances. She stuffed the cellphone down her bra and picked up a large torch from the passenger’s seat. She’d bought it earlier that day at Bunnings.
She looked around. None of the nearby houses had lights on. She decided not to turn on the torch unless she had to. She’d let her eyes adjust to the dark. She was less noticeable that way; she could blend in to the landscape.
Maggie had just stepped over the low concrete block fence when she was startled by the noise of a car engine. She dived behind a hydrangea bush. A silver Suzuki Swift came around the corner and slowed down by the house. She peered out, but couldn’t see who was driving. The car stopped for a few seconds then continued down the street until she could no longer see it.
Was that Lois? She normally drove a red Honda but she could have borrowed another car. It would be just like her not to be at home in bed and to be playing some sort of mind game. Just like the mind games she played at the book club. Before Lois had joined, everyone got on well and Maggie had always enjoyed herself. But then Lois arrived, banging on about Haruki Murakami and Virginia Woolf and sneering at Jojo Moyes and Diana Gabaldon. She had caused quite a schism. Unforgivable.
Maggie continued across the lawn, in silence except for the sound of dry leaves crunching underfoot.
Overhead, clouds covered the moon and she heard a rustle in the trees behind her. Maggie froze, her heart pounding. Was someone there? She stood completely still, feeling the gentle breeze on her cheek. All at once she heard the flapping of wings and an unseen bird took flight. She breathed a sigh of relief and carried on.
She made her way silently around the house, thankful that there was no dog in residence. At the back door, she stooped and picked up the spare key from underneath an ornamental watering can.
Her breath was coming in short bursts when she slowly turned the key in the lock and opened the back door. From there it was only ten paces to the kitchen pantry. She flung it open and shone the torch in. There it was, the large Tupperware container with the pavlova in it. She grabbed it and turned back to the door. Lois’s Persian cat looked at her curiously from the doorway to the living room.
Maggie stepped outside, locked the door and hid the key again then made her way around the side of the house and back to the footpath. Through the plastic container, the pavlova glowed faintly in the moonlight like a giant radioactive marshmallow. Maggie smiled to think that Lois wouldn’t have time to make another one before the school gala day tomorrow.
She went back to her car and got in. She couldn’t resist. “Yes!” she said, punching the air. Then she put the key in.
A large shape loomed into view in the rear-view mirror. Maggie gasped, then recognised Lois – sitting in the back seat.
“Hand it over,” said Lois.
“No,” said Maggie. “Mum left the recipe to both of us when she died. I’ve had enough! I’m making a stand!”
“Get over it,” said Lois, stroking Rufus behind the ears. “I may have taken the recipe, but I’ve always been the better baker. Admit it! Besides, you stole my boyfriend. That was unforgivable.”
Maggie thought about Ken, snuggled up in bed, no doubt snoring loudly and hogging the duvet.
“Tell you what, sis,” she said. “How about we swap. I’ll take the pav, and you can have Ken back.”
Lois looked horrified. “No,” she said. “You’ll never get your hands on the recipe.”