“Right here.” Tommy grinned and pointed to the middle of his chest. “And stop throwing like a girl.”
“I am a girl, idiot.”
Abby lifted her left arm and threw the ball towards Tommy as hard as she dared. He laughed as a flash of red skimmed his shoulder and things clattered to the floor behind him.
“What was that ya goose? You’re getting the ball, Abs.”
“It’s alright Abs I’ll get it. And will ya both stop muckin’ around? We’re gonna get yelled at again.”
Luke jumped to his feet and glanced out into the corridor. Relieved they hadn’t attracted any attention, he picked up the dinner tray and empty containers and tried to rearrange them as haphazardly as Tommy had discarded them an hour earlier. He slumped back into his chair, the red foam ball squished between his fingers.
Tommy lifted his arms and cupped his hands in front of his chest. Luke’s aim was far better than Abby’s and as the cold foam connected with his palms he curled his fingers as quickly as he could to hold onto the ball. “Yeaaahhhh,” he roared.
“Tommo. Oooh oooh oooh. Tommo. Oooh oooh oooh.” Luke fist pumped the air as he chanted.
“And I’m gonna get us yelled at.” Abby rolled her eyes and pulled at the sling on her right arm until the fabric almost covered the myriad of deep scratches on her hand.
“Mate, next season ….” Luke leaned forward and took the ball from Tommy. “You’re gonna be like Dustin Martin.”
“Tommy’s too hairy for tattoos.”
“I’m not hairy.”
“I’m not talking about tatts. I’m talking about moves. He’s gonna be moving like Dusty on the field.”
“Oh,’ giggled Abby. “I thought you meant tattoos. Cody wanted a tattoo.”
Abby stopped abruptly and felt a lump swell in her throat as her smile faded. She dropped her gaze to the scuffed grey vinyl beneath her feet. Her brother’s name was like a raw sting that hit before you had time to brace yourself against it. Hot tears trekked down her cheeks and she watched as they dripped relentlessly onto her sling and jeans. She’d promised herself she’d be strong every time she saw Tommy and she wondered if he wished she hadn’t come.
“What’s it like at home?” Luke reached out and put a hand on her shoulder.
Abby took a deep breath and shifted in her chair.
“Weird. Quiet. Like really quiet. Mum sits in his room a lot, you know, holding his trophies, staring at nothing. Sometimes it’s as if I’m not even there. And Dad’s not there. And then she’s like running around yelling Abby you’re not going out, Abby you’re not doing this, Abby you’re not doing that.”
Tommy and Luke nodded together in silence.
“We’re all doing counselling.” Abby swiped at her tears. “Sorry.”
Luke twirled the ball between his fingers and tried to think of something to say. Everything that came to mind sounded lame, so he decided to say nothing.
“Mum’s coming in to pick me up. At two,” said Abby.
“What?” Tommy’s heart started to hammer in his chest. “What do you mean she’s coming in?”
“She’s coming to pick me up and wants to see you.”
“But I don’t know what to say.”
“Yeah that’s what she said too.”
“Is she mad at me?”
“No, she’s not mad, Tommy, she’s just … I dunno. Just sad, I guess. I mean she was pretty mad at what happened. Like I said, she just wants to see you.”
“How can she not be mad at me? You guys should never have been in my car.”
“Jesus Tommo.” Luke threw the foam ball fiercely across the room. It bounced off a window with a loud thud and rolled back along the floor towards them. Abby dished out a warning slap on Luke’s arm as she heard squeaking on the floor outside Tommy’s room.
Luke recognized the grumpy nurse straight away and hoped he wasn’t about to be chastised for flinging the physiotherapy ball at the window.
“Now how are we doing Thomas? I’ll just move that tray out of the way for you. Would one of you please get that ball on the floor, I’ll take that away as well so nobody slips on it. Thank you. Oh, and Thomas you have another visitor on the way up.”
Luke smiled broadly as he offered the ball in his outstretched arm and attempted a curtsey. “There you go,” he said as he gave the nurse a flirty wink.
“Please remember there are other patients in this ward.”
Abby tried to stifle a laugh as Luke received a stern glare.
“Dude,” grinned Tommo when they were alone again. “She hates you.”
As Christine stepped out of the lift a young blonde nurse walked past carrying a red ball and a tray that looked like it had exploded. She wrinkled her nose at that all too familiar hospital smell and glanced at the board in front of her. An arrow pointing right directed her to Room SW9. She couldn’t remember when her legs had started to shake and she told herself to breathe.
What was wrong with her? She was a grown woman. She’d known Tommy since he started in Prep with Cody. Cody and Tommy went to each other’s birthday parties, had sleepovers, played on the same football team. They’d both had a crush on the same girl in their first year of high school. She knew these kids inside out. Her home was their second home. Why was walking through that door so difficult?
She’d waited too long. She knew she’d waited too long. She didn’t blame him. In the days following the crash she’d blamed everybody, even herself. Cody and Abby were supposed to get a lift home from the party with another parent but decided to stay longer. Why didn’t they call her? She would have picked them up. They could have called an Uber. Why did they get into Tommy’s car? He was a red P plater. He wasn’t allowed to have all four of them in his car. They all knew that.
Five minutes. Five minutes was all it would have taken for them not to be on the same stretch of road as that truck. The police officers on her doorstep in the middle of night were so kind and sympathetic but everything they said in their calm voices didn’t stop the words speed and drugs pounding in her ears.
Christine felt her daughter’s arm wrap firmly around her waist as she took slow steps into the room.
Luke stood up and winked at her. The jagged wound along his jaw from his ear to his chin had turned an odd shade of deep purple now the stitches had been removed. That mischievous little face with its crooked cheeky smile had greeted her every morning at the primary school gates, emblazoned on a billboard under the banner St Michael’s – School, Family, Community. Christine reached out and embraced him.
Then her eyes met Tommy’s. He didn’t speak but held her gaze and she watched his eyes redden with tears. He looked so much smaller in the wheelchair except for his giant mop of unruly dark curls cascading around his neckbrace. The colourful blanket covering his legs had clearly been lovingly crocheted by a hospital volunteer. It obviously wasn’t Tommy’s. There were no skulls or bandanas on it.
Christine had rehearsed her opening lines in her mind over and over but now all she wanted to do was hug him.
As they held each other and cried, Tommy’s head filled with thoughts of everything he wanted to say. He wanted to tell her he was sorry for having too many people in his car. He wanted to tell her he would give anything to have Cody here with them. He wanted to tell her how sorry he was that he couldn’t leave hospital to say goodbye at the funeral. He wanted to tell her how hard he had tried to avoid the speeding truck driver, high on drugs, swerving all over the road.
But no words came. Only silent tears. And for now, that was all they both needed.
He is standing outside the factory gates, looking down the rural highway that stretches away to infinity through the bush in the soft early morning light.
He is wearing one of the orange safety shirts that the hire company gives to their casual day-labour people.
But this is not day-labour technically – the factory runs a permanent night shift, the one that I am on, for twelve hours from dusk till dawn.
It is daybreak now, the shift is over. Time to go home.
It’s obvious this fellow doesn’t have transport, so I ask him if he wants a lift back to town. It’s what we all do at the factory, it’s an unwritten rule.
The factory is twenty kilometres from town and there is no bus service out here. And we all get car trouble at some time and help each other out.
I take a glance at him as we head off.
Tall and skinny. Bloody pale for a country bloke. In fact, there’s something wrong with his skin. Chalky as if he has a vitamin deficiency.
Blue tattoos up each arm, but nothing unusual in that, not these days.
He has quite a few missing teeth, and it doesn’t look like they fell out through natural causes. His face is scarred in quite a few places, as if he has had a lifetime of fighting.
All I know is his name: John.
He’s got to be under thirty but looks forty: life seems to have added some years at some point.
It doesn’t take much longer to find out what that point was.
I am making casual conversation, just talking bullshit like we all do at work, yarning about how hard the shift was.
Staring straight ahead through the windscreen, talking in the most matter-of-fact way, John says:
‘I’ve been in jail for seven years … this is my first job out.’
To get that many years, it must have been something big, and by the look of him I don’t think it was white-collar crime but something more personal and brutal.
I’m wondering if it was a mistake to give him a lift.
For the rest of the car trip, John doesn’t add anything further about his background – and I don’t really want to know.
When we get to the outskirts of town, he asks me to take him all the way to his house.
Nothing unusual in that, except that because of where we end up, it would have been understandable if he had simply asked to be dropped off on the main road (I would have, in the same circumstances).
Instead, he gives directions, still in that flat, dead-voice way.
From the initial instructions, it is clear we are heading to the worst part of town, the run-down public housing area, the place everyone calls ‘the wrong side of the tracks’.
As we get closer to what passes for his home, the streets and houses get rougher and tougher. Graffiti on the bus shelters. Old car bodies in overgrown yards. Smashed windows and rubbish in the gutters. Every so often a completely burnt-out hulk of what used to be a residence.
And it turns out that John lives in a cul-de-sac at the very bottom of the absolute worst street – a street whose name is well-known because it is mentioned so frequently in the court reports published in the local newspaper.
The house, when he indicates which one it is, is a shocker. About the only positive would be that most of it is still standing. Flyscreens are hanging off windows. There are large holes punched in the fibro walls. Bags of rubbish piled up on the step. Not a single plant in the barren yard.
And there’s no worse time to see a sight like all of this than in the harsh light of early morning when the human spirit is at its lowest ebb.
John gets out and walks to his front door. Stumbles, more accurately.
He looks shattered, getting through a heavy-duty night shift after years out of the workforce.
As I drive away, I think about my own life and what I had considered to be a pretty hard run lately: divorce, losing the house, starting again.
I realise from this trip there are always people worse off than yourself.
And I also think: I won’t be seeing John again.
You don’t often see these kinds of blokes surviving in the factory work routine. Most first-timers won’t come back for a second shift.
The kinds of people who turn up for this type of labouring work are footy players in their off-season, backpackers, uni students on holidays – and guys straight off the street, like John. The factory work is hard and dirty, and most don’t like it. There are easier casual jobs around and they soon gravitate away.
But not John.
That night, he is back at the factory for the next shift. He doesn’t comment on how he got there.
Next morning he asks for a lift back to town. He says it politely, but in a way that comes with a resigned spirit, that the answer is likely to be negative, that he has had this happen before and it is expected.
I am annoyed with the imposition but intrigued also, so I agree.
But then I almost regret doing it, because a bit more of his story leaks out on the way.
He tells me he has been let out of jail early, to look after his de facto partner’s kids because she has terminal liver disease.
Cirrhosis – the old wino’s disease? In a young woman? I can hardly believe it, except that he says it in such a frank, blunt way that it seems completely plausible.
Straight after this revelation, he is asking when pay day is at the factory.
When I tell him it is not until tomorrow, he can’t hide the disappointment.
I am waiting for him to hit me up for money, maybe the sob story about the partner was just a lead-up to that, but he doesn’t.
The next evening, he is back at the factory.
Again I give him a lift home afterwards.
We do the same journey as the two nights before, but this morning is a bit different. He asks me to take a detour through the local McDonalds on the way.
He buys a heap of stuff – several brown paper bags of things come through the drive-through window.
And when I drop him off at his house, he doesn’t shuffle down the driveway like an old man but walks proud like a king. There are a couple of small faces jumping up and down inside the grimy windows and I’m guessing Dad bringing home a warm breakfast for the family doesn’t happen often in this place.
Next week, the company assigns John to a different crew and from then on I only run into him at the factory by chance.
Our greetings are cursory, but we always says hello.
He doesn’t comment on how he is getting to and from work.
He marches in each shift with grim determination. Never smiles. Always a bit wary-looking. I hear that at the meal breaks he sits alone, apart from the other men, often smoking in solitude out the front of the building.
I also hear bits and pieces of gossip (and men are just as bad as women in this regard). I am relatively new to the town but others have been there far longer and things about John filter out.
He is from a bad family (whatever that means), there have been issues with drugs and alcohol over many years, a history of trouble culminating in some kind of botched armed robbery.
But while the gossip swirls overhead and behind his back, something remarkable happens.
John just keeps going.
Knowing what I do about his background, I am amazed at the transformation he is making, how a person can blend into the mob when he is wearing a uniform, hard hat and steel-capped boots like all the rest.
It is only when you look closer, at the skin still too white and the eyes still too hard, that you see the small differences. But I wonder, as time goes on, whether everyone at work misses these minor details now.
But the real change I don’t see until a month or so later.
Saturday morning, at the shopping centre with my young daughter, I run into John with a small boy he introduces as his stepson.
The boy has something in a glossy bag from the computer shop. He is hopping from foot to foot with anticipation.
‘I’ve bought him a new video game,’ John explains.
‘I don’t even know how to play these myself,’ he adds with a wry grin. It is the closest I have seen him to making a joke.
John is wearing a new polo shirt and his hair is brushed clean and straight. He has grown a goatee beard lately, but it is neat and trim and also covers a couple of the scars on his face.
We stand there for a minute, chatting like any two regular Dads doing the weekend shopping.
Then John makes his goodbyes and heads off. The plaza is busy, Christmas is not far away, and as I watch him go I see him reach down and take the boy’s hand protectively to steer the lad safely through the crowds.
They don’t have award programs for the Johns of this world, and you won’t ever see him on television on the lawns of Government House, receiving a medal for bravery.
But still, there’s got to be a kind of courage in just keeping going under the hardest of conditions, trying to get somewhere in life after starting from nowhere.
Over Growing Season
At the kitchen table, we read what takes us away from the dinner and drops us somewhere else. A car magazine. A book on whales. A bible.
Beside my plate, The Gardener’s Companion lies open to the chapter on Espalier Trained Trees. Father says that our garden will become my job now that George is earning.
“You great lumps are eating me out of house and home,” Father grumbles. I thought that house and home were words for same thing, but I don’t ask questions.
“Questions are for time-wasters,” Father reckons, “and communists.”
Our garden runs down the hill from the shed. I’m afraid of the red-bellied black snakes that live in the long grass beneath the spare-parts Toyota in the orchard. I’ve seen what snakebite does to dogs and I have nightmares about it happening to me, but Mother says that it’s good to be afraid.
“Fear keeps you alert,” she strokes my hair. “Fear keeps you safe.”
Mother holds her volume of poetry just so to catch the lamp over the kitchen table. My brothers eat carefully, drawing their lips back from their forks. Father hates the sound of us eating. We chew each bite thirty times like we’re told. I don’t need to watch them to know that my brothers do this, and Father doesn’t either. On the inside cover of Mother’s book someone had scrawled, For Helen, on our wedding day. But that page is gone now. There are four of us boys: George, Jack, Ted and Philip. I’m Jack. My father is also Jack, his father was Jack, and so was his grandpa. If I ever have a son he has to be a Jack, too.
“How many Jacks can one family have?” I asked Mother when I was lighting
the stove after milking. We were alone in the kitchen. I could hear George chopping wood outside. It was cold. A jug of fresh cream stood untouched on the bench, waiting for Father’s breakfast.
“How many Jacks, you reckon?” I insisted. At the stove, the newsprint wouldn’t light. Everything felt damp. Mother put down the slops bucket, heavy with potato peelings, apple-cores and broken eggshell, to wipe her hands on her apron. Then she knelt down in front of me and wrapped her arms around my waist.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered into my chest. “You’re different from them love, don’t you mind your stupid name.” Afterwards, I found a wet patch on the front of my woollen jumper, but it soon dried. In Mother’s bedroom there is a box full of clothes for Caroline, my sister who never arrived. When Caroline turned out to be Ted and then Phillip, Mother put the box up high above her closet.
“Five blokes is more enough for one house,” Mother said after Phillip, and there were no more babies. Now I see the way Mother copies down recipes into her book, careful not to spill ink. There will be no daughter to read the words, but she writes them out regardless. Only I see how each recipe becomes a kind of prayer. But God doesn’t seem to be listening to Mother. I don’t understand why not, when Auntie Lorna often tells us that Mother is a saint. When George got a job, Mother’s face went the colour of soap.
“But down at the school they reckon George could get a scholarship to university if he works hard enough,” she wailed. You could see she how badly she wanted to keep the words in, but they came bursting out regardless. “He’ll be wasted on the line, Jack! You want him to end up with a crook back like you?” Me and Ted and Phillip went straight down to the dam then. Phillip’s hand is smaller than mine and sticky, but sometimes I hold it tight because it makes him feel braver. From the orchard we heard glass smash up in the house.
“Let’s race,” I said. We sprinted until we couldn’t breathe, and then we lay on the bank of the dam watching clouds. We waited until we saw Father’s car leaving, then we waited a little while longer. It was dark when we got in and Mother was already asleep with a wet towel over her bruises. On the third shelf in the linen press, George’s final exam is pressed between starched sheets. Mother sometimes takes a long time folding washing.
“Must be the dust,” she says of her red eyes. As you are making the espalier, look to see that it’s going to grow nicely on just one dimension, I read. Any branches that look wrong need to be trained back. Through the open door in the lounge I can hear piano music; the news is starting. Father has his feet up on his stool. I can see his bald skull above the back of his chair.
I got in trouble was last Friday when I dropped a watermelon on the drive. It was heavier than I thought it would be, and grew heavier with every step. Father was behind me, brown bags filled with shopping. One moment the watermelon was in my arms, the next it was in pieces. Pink flesh bled from its broken shell. The old man’s face went the colour of the melon. We have to bend over and hold onto the back of the couch when we deserve a lashing. If you look closely at the leather you can see where the cow’s hair grew out before it was skinned. After my beating, I told Phillip about the hair and he got scared.
“Don’t be a wuss!” I said and belted him one in the head, which made me feel better. Espaliers need constant work, especially over the growing season. Ted is reading a book about snakes at the table. He has lined up his book so that every time he turns a page it throws the page I’m reading into shadow. He presses his knee against mine, just a small pressure, not enough to cause pain but enough to be annoying. In summer, Ted is the one who does the burning-off. He likes the whoosh of a match set to grass. There is always a moment when you think the fire will run towards the house and that’s when Ted is happiest. Luckily he’s a fast runner and good with a wet sack.
Stop it, I mouth when Ted bangs my leg harder. Everyone turns their eyes on me. Phillip has his whole hand in his mouth. He’s five seconds away from crying. Mother puts her hand on his back to rub circles, but she’s looking at me and at Ted with her you-know-better face. After a beat, Ted shifts away, but he’ll probably get me back later, when no one is watching. Father shifts in his chair and burps loudly. In the living room, the fire cracks, sounding warm and cosy. I draw my coat in. Wind rattles the kitchen window, blowing cold breath on my neck. My toes have gone numb.
“Helen,” the old man barks in his sheepdog-training voice. He holds his empty stein over the arm of the chair. It’s the sixth drink tonight. Ted shoots me a look, and I know what he’s thinking. The highest number I’ve counted is thirty, but there’s never less than five. Mother knows a lot of things: how to prepare pots for herbs and how to bake bread. Where fairies live in the garden and how to patch holes in socks. She knows where to rub if you fall out of a tree and how to pull a bee-sting out of a finger without hurting. She knows our favourite colours and what toys we wish we could get for Christmas. But what she just can’t fathom is how she would cope on her own with us lot, and no way to make ends meet.
“I’m sorry, but it’s you or them, Helen,” I heard Auntie Lorna say before Mother closed her bedroom door. “You’re no good to those boys dead.” In the morning, I will begin work in our garden. It’s a good book I’ve got here but I don’t know if it’s enough to get me through growing season. You need to some sort of support or scaffold to grow healthy trees. I don’t think we’ve got anything like that in our orchard, but I’ll try to make do without.
A New Church
I watch her suck the nitrous oxide from the balloon. Her jet-black fringe sticks to her forehead and her eyes begin to sag.
She looks up in a daze and leans back into the old saloon chair and sighs.
The walls of the Marrickville warehouse are painted black and purple. They are tacky to touch, freshly sprayed by local artists for a pittance. I want to lick them to see if they taste like the cigarettes sleeping between the lips of strangers dressed in black.
I buy a pill from a man with long hair and hold it to the light – an empty cap and a pinch of powder. ‘Shake it like a polaroid picture’ blares from the speakers from a metal cover band. I place the pill on my tongue and swallow. I cradle a half empty bottle of wine under my right arm and sway to the music with my eyes closed. I can see the ocean behind my eyelids when I do that and it reminds me of life before I was chewed up and spat out by suits and hard desk chairs.
I wait for everything to happen but nothing does.
I move to another part of the building- through doorways framed with headless plastic dolls and chipped skirting boards. I enter a room made up of mirrors and glass. It’s supposed to be the ‘chill out room’ but it makes me anxious. There’s a girl in a tartan skirt passed out on a couch, up against one of the mirrored walls. Her hand is flopped over the edge of the sofa like a ventriloquist dummy. I am scared a man will come and put himself inside her and control the way she moves.
A man did that to me once. It made me scared for all the women before me and all the women afterwards. I was scared for that girl but I left her there. What was there to do? I was too drunk to think about it and they would wonder what else she was expecting.
I stumble past the bar where the nangs are being sold like cigarettes for $5 a pop. I stumble past the orange skate ramp where drunk girls roll up and down, back and forth. The boys are gathered around taking photos of them. I stumble by the bookshelf, a hardcover copy of Pulp slipping off the top shelf. It reminds me of Bukowski’s poem Bluebird:
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
The music is loud and people are dancing by themselves and with each other and with their arms raised to the sky. All the men on stage playing instruments have long hair. They reminded me of the Jesus I used to sing to in church on Sunday morning when I was dressed in a sunflower dress. If the lights were on, this would probably feel like a church too. Plastic communion cups always reminded me of shot glasses.
I meet a boy and he tells me he can offer me the world but I tell him I have my own. He shrugs and walks up to the girl dancing behind me.
I move out of the building and onto the curb and walk up Faversham Street, lighting a cigarette. It’s a different shade of cool, night time. I like watching the smoke change colour as I walk under the street lamps. Grey, blue, orange, yellow, white.
The streets are littered with red lights and empty cans, nondescript venues glowing yellow in the early hours of the morning. There’s a sewerage truck parked out the front of the warehouse with ‘We pump, we blow, we go’ printed on the side.
I think of the girl with the nang and the black fringe. I think about the girl with the tartan skirt on the couch. I think about me in bed with him. I think about the bloody sheets the morning after, stuffed in the bin next to a toilet full of vomit. I think about the guy who saw dinner as some transaction, some stock exchange, and took me back to his empty apartment for payment. I think about the guy who scoffed when I said I was on my period and that it didn’t matter- it was no excuse. He laughed when he saw the pad. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of being a woman.
This of all things, must have been why my minister insisted on no sex before marriage.
I take a drag of my cigarette, drop it into an ashtray welded into a light pole and walk into a building with a red light.
“Del in?”, I ask the receptionist with eyebrows that look like waning crescent moons.
She lifts her eyes and nods towards the hall.
I met Delilah at university. She was a gender studies major who marched in all the rallies and didn’t shave under her arms and was open about the fact she was a sex worker. I was drawn to her because sex had always scared me- it was never something I felt in control of. How could she be selling her body to men that saw her as nothing more than an instrument of pleasure? That’s all I was for men, except I didn’t get paid. Instead I was left, breadcrumbs on a plate.
Del was supposed to meet me at the party, but I’d had enough of the black walls. I tap on her door.
“Hey, it’s me. Ready to go?”
I can hear her gathering her bags and decide to wait.
She emerges in a camel overcoat with faux fur around the collar. I remember finding it in an opportunity shop with her a couple of months ago for $25. You can’t get anything less than $10 at an op shop now. I remember when it used to be $2 for a plastic bag with all-you-can-fit. Things seem to get more expensive as you get older. The numbers keep ticking in the wrong direction. Why doesn’t time have a stop?
“Are we going or what?”, she smiles in her usual nonchalant way, a slight smirk on her face. She hitches up her black jeans with the ripped knees and tosses her brunette curls over her shoulder.
“Nah, it’s shit. Everyone’s done already.”
Del shrugs and we walk out to the street. I don’t like asking her how work is. It’s not like picking up a friend from a night pulling beers and asking whether they’d had any shitty customers. Or maybe it is. I’m still awkward about it either way.
I decide to walk her back to the party because she wants to let off steam after a big night. The cap is starting to kick in so I have energy but not enough to drown in cigarettes and distant eyes.
We walk in silence for a while.
“I had a guy tonight and all he wanted was to be held. He just lay in my lap and I played with his hair and he told me about his childhood for a whole hour. It was really sad.”
I thought about the fact that being held was sometimes really scary for me. That being handled with care can often make me feel selfish or fidgety. Most of the time I want to be treated rough so that I can block out what happened to me. Make it rougher, hold me tighter. Handle with force.
It’s amazing how lost you can feel in your own body, how sensitive you can be to the ebb and flow of fear and loneliness.
I say goodbye to Del and walk into the morning. I take comfort knowing that even though my sheets are yellowed with age, they are warm; even though my walls are mouldy, they hold up a roof; even though my heart is empty, it is beating and I am alive.
I finish putting the last of the smarties on Demi’s cake and straighten, rubbing my lower back. I look at my phone again. Still no reply. I pick it up, wiping away a smudge of icing from the screen, and call her again. Still no answer.
The last time my mum went quiet on me and didn’t answer my calls, I ended up getting a phone call from the hospital. She’d wrapped her car around a tree on the way home from a friend’s place. She was in hospital for a week. The hardest thing for her was not being able to drink or smoke while she was in there. It was all that she could think about. Not her injuries. Not how lucky she was. Not the reason that landed her in there.
Is it time to call the hospital yet? Or the cops? I picture her lying unconscious on the floor of her flat. Or in a lock-up somewhere. I call my sister.
“Have you heard from Linda?”
“Yeah. She’s here.”
“Right.” A little coil of jealousy creeps up my spine. I know the reason why she spends so much time there. But I still feel jealous. There is this little world they share from which I have always been excluded. And somehow, despite all of my successes and all of their failures, it is this reason that they have always held some sort of superiority over me. “Can you ask her why she’s not answering my calls?”
“Oh, she left her phone at home. You wanna talk to her?”
“It’s Sally,” she says.
“Oh shit!” I hear my mum say in the background. Then “Oh, Sally!” her voice close to the mouthpiece now. “I’m so sorry!”
“Shit Connie, we’re meant to be at Sally’s place! For Demi’s birthday!”
Connie says something that might be “oh yeah”.
“I suppose that means you didn’t make anything then, for the dinner.”
“No! I completely forgot! And you know what, I can’t drive, I’ve got no petrol. And no money. I got the train here.”
“Maybe you could come and get us?”
I look over at Demi and Rueben. They’re cuddled up on the couch in front of the TV. They’re quiet. It has been a long day. Early morning, excitement, opening presents, a long day at childcare while I was at work. As soon as we got home I put them in front of the TV so I could keep them quiet and make the cake. I feel guilty. I just want to sit down and cuddle my daughter.
“Or you could bring the party here!”
I clench my teeth. It would be so convenient for my mum if we went there, where she’d be completely within her comfort zones, but I don’t want to make it that easy for her.
“Dave isn’t even home from work yet, and the kids are tired. I don’t want to put them all in the car right now, and I’ve made a cake, and I haven’t even made dinner yet.” I say, my tone implying that this list could go on.
But my excuses are ignored. “You could bring the cake and pick up take away.”
I roll my eyes, And who would pay for that?
“I just really don’t want to miss Demi’s birthday.”
“Yeah I know. I’ll see if Dave can pick you up.”
“Oh that would be wonderful.”
“Ok. I’ll talk to you later.”
“Ok. Look forward to it.”
I put the phone down and sigh, tears stinging my eyes. It’s not that she let me down. I expect her to do that. It is just that for once I would like her to surprise me.
I look at the cake. I am proud of it. It’s not perfect. The icing isn’t quite the right consistency and some of the smarties are out of place, but put together it looks good, and it’s something I made. I take a photo of it and upload it to Instagram. I wanted my mum to see it. I want her to be proud.
I wonder what sort of mood Dave with be in. If he stops for drinks with his mates on the way home then he’s in a good mood when he walks through the door, albeit a little late at times. He plays with the kids. He helps put them to bed and the kids go to bed happy. But on this occasion I asked him to come straight home for Demi’s birthday. I wanted it to be about her.
I call him.
“Hey.” He answers.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m on my way home. Why?”
“Could you pick up my mum and Connie on the way?”
“Mum’s at Connie’s and they don’t have petrol or any money.”
“Oh for fuck sake.”
“It’s not that far out of your way.”
“Sally, you asked me to come straight home, for Demi. Now you want me to go and pick up your junkie mum and sister?! Do you even want them there? They drive you insane!”
“I want them here for Demi.”
“Then you go and get them then. I’m not doing it,” he says, and he hangs up.
I look at the cake. The cake that I’ve spent two hours making that no-one is going to eat. Well, we’ll eat cake for dinner then. Demi will love that. I put the cake in a large plastic container with a lid.
“Get your shoes on kids.”
They look up at me, blinking, bleary eyed, only half listening.
“What?” says Rueben.
“What do you want for dinner, Demi?”
“Umm…” she considers my question seriously and then, apprehensively, “Chinese?”
“Then let’s go and get Chinese!”
“Yay!” says Demi, running to the door.
“I’m going to get dim sims!” says Reuben, as he puts on his shoes.
I bundle them into the car and put the cake on the front seat. I put a seatbelt around the container to stop it from slipping off the seat. It’s dark outside and getting close to their bedtime by the time we pull up outside the Chinese restaurant.
“So we’ll just get some take away and take it to Grandma’s OK?” I say, as we undo our seatbelts.
“Can’t we eat here?” says Reuben, peering into the warmly lit dining area.
I pause, turning around to face them. “Do you want to eat here, Demi?”
“Yeah!” she says, her face lit up momentarily by a car parking next to us.
“Ok. Then let’s eat here.”
I get a table for three. I put the cake under the red-clothed table. We order dim sims, fried rice and lemon chicken.
I get a text. It’s from my sister: “R U coming?”
“NO.” I write, my fingers shaking, and I hit send. Then I turn off my phone. I don’t know what happens next. I’ve never said no before. For once in my life I have surprised myself.
After our meal, I ask the waiter for a knife and some small plates. I open the lid on the container. My heart sinks. The icing has melted. The smarties have slipped to one side and there is no rainbow on top of the cake anymore.
“What’s wrong?” asks Demi.
“It’s your cake. It’s ruined.” These last two words nearly choke me. I take the cake out of the container and place it on the table. I feel myself slipping. I’ve made a mess of everything. “Damnit!” I say, in a hot whisper.
“It doesn’t matter,” says Reuben.
“Yeah, I don’t mind,” says Demi.
“It will still taste the same,” says Reuben.
I see the look of calm concern in their faces. I pull myself together and put some candles on top of the cake. We sing happy birthday and Demi blows out her candles. When I cut open the cake, Demi gasps. Inside, all the layers are still perfect. Blue, green, yellow, orange, red, and purple in bright, even layers, from bottom to top. “It’s a rainbow cake!” she exclaims. And the smile on her face is enough.
The secret to happiness is freedom…
And the secret to freedom is courage—Thucydides
‘I saw an ibis today.’
‘I was at the gate and saw it fly over the house.’ I wind some linguini around my fork. Thom drains his glass of wine. There is pesto in the corner of his mouth. I don’t tell him. ‘Pass the water, please.’ I pour myself a glass. It is icy, hurts my teeth.
In bed I lie on my back and look at the shadows on the ceiling. I think about the ibis. How strange it felt to see one in the city: an elegant white bird high over black streets, black factories, black chimneys. Thom’s already asleep. I listen to his breathing. Remember when it used to make me feel safe. Now it grates inside. I take my pillow and head for the lounge.
I’m standing in the backyard when I see it again. Now there is a whole flock of them tearing through clouds towards the creek.
‘What are you looking at?’
‘You scared me.’
‘What are you looking at?’
‘Look: the ibises.’
‘Oh.’ Thom clips and unclips the plastic pegs on the empty clothesline. Slides them along the wire. ‘How’s your sister?’
‘She’s fine, I suppose.’ My eyes scan the pot plants under the verandah. One of the large leaves on the lily is serrated from the work of a caterpillar.
‘It’s hard,’ Thom says. ‘I know it’s hard.’
I have my back to him. I feel him watching me, but don’t turn around.
Thom is drying the dishes, a smile on his face. I rub my eyes. Sit down at the table. ‘She doesn’t even know me,’ I say.
‘What do you mean?’
‘She thought I was one of the volunteers.’
‘I know. I said “I’m your sister. Dom. Domina. Hello.” I wanted to add “Domina fix it,” but didn’t.’
Thom puts down the tea towel and reaches out to touch my cheek. I swing my head around. Get up. Put the dishes away.
‘I bought a box of after dinner mints,’ he says. ‘I thought maybe we could eat them later, have a glass of wine before bed.’
‘No, thanks. I think I’ll go to bed now.’
‘Go on, just the one.’
‘Just the one, eh? No.’
Fresh cotton sheets. Crisp and cool. I want to cry. Once I was the big sister who’d clean up her mess and cover up for her. Now I’m just a stranger.
‘Even Amy’s given up on her,’ I say as Thom climbs into bed.
‘That’s the thing. Daughters are not supposed to mother their mothers, are they?’
‘I don’t know.’
I roll over and try to look at Thom in the dark. All I see is a shadowy silhouette. I reach out and touch his face. Briefly. I wonder how much grog you’ve got to drink to fry your brain. How much pot you’ve got to smoke. Maybe Thom will wake up one day and not know who I am. Just a stranger lying on the other side of the bed. What would he remember? But I know that’s not the real issue.
‘Promise me,’ I say.
‘Not again. You’re barking up the wrong tree. There’s no mental illness in my family.’
‘Your brother killed himself.’
‘Your sister Pip was anorexic. Is. Plus she used to drink like a fish.’
‘But it’s the pot that tipped her over the edge.’
Come on. Thom kisses my fingertips, but I take my hand away and lie still.
Pip lies prostrate on a chaise-longue in the sun room, her gaze lost out the window, a copy of Vogue at her feet. The tin of shortbreads I brought last week sits on the coffee table, a note propped on the lid: Help yourself
‘Hi. I brought you some nail polish.’
‘How did you know I loved nail polish?’
‘I just knew.’
Pip sits up, spreads out her fingers before me. I unscrew the bottle and begin to paint her nails. ‘It’s quite hot outside, I say.’
‘This reminds me of gin and tonic. The smell, I mean. It’s been so long.’
‘You’re doing well.’
‘When I was little, my sister used to paint my nails.’
‘Mmm. You used to paint, too. Pictures.’
‘I was quite artistic.’
‘There’s an Art Room here. Perhaps you could…’
‘I don’t think I’m up to it. I’d just want to… I don’t know. It’s so beautiful out there.’
‘Yes, hard to think you’re in the city. Anyway, I’d best push on,’ I stand up.
‘Thanks for doing my nails. Sorry, but I can’t remember your name.’
‘That’s okay. We all forget things. I’m terrible with numbers. I’m Dom. Domina.’
‘I once knew a Domina. “Fix it, Domina, Fix it!” Can’t remember where that’s from.
That night I water the plants and watch the ibises fly towards the creek. I find it difficult to imagine that on the other side of all the concrete and lights and petrol fumes there is a creek. Even the word creek sounds quaint. A place of mud and rocks and dusty green. I wish I could fly, like those white paper aeroplanes drifting in the sky. When the dark falls on the shape of shadows I go inside and hop into bed.
‘Early night,’ Thom says.
‘I haven’t seen much of you lately,’ he says, climbing in beside me.
A sigh. The air in the room is heavy, warm and sticks to the skin. ‘Thom?’
‘Have you ever wanted to fly?’
‘I guess. When I was a kid.’
‘What about now?’
‘Not really. He inches his way closer to me. Do you?’
‘Sometimes.’ I can smell his breath. Pull the sheet around my shoulders, close my eyes, then say: ‘it’s been thirty-three days.’