Authors: Charlotte Wood
Edited by Charlotte Wood
Some of the stories in this collection use real events as their settings,
but they are stories, and the characters and all their actions are works of fiction.
First published in 2009
Introduction and selection copyright © Charlotte Wood 2009
Copyright in individual contributions © retained by authors
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian
Copyright Act 1968
(the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.
Allen & Unwin
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Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: (61 2) 8425 0100
Fax: (61 2) 9906 2218
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Cataloguing-in-Publication details are available from the National Library of Australia
ISBN 978 1 74175 822 1
Set in 12/16 pt Filosophia by Bookhouse, Sydney Printed and bound in Australia by Griffin Press
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
ABOUT THE OTHERS
* Virginia Peters
PALEFACE AND THE PANTHER
* Robert Drewe
BEADS AND SHELLS AND TEETH
* Cate Kennedy
LIKE MY FATHER, MY BROTHER
* Michael Sala
THE CRICKET PALACE
* Charlotte Wood
* Roger McDonald
* Tegan Bennett Daylight
THE SINGULAR ANIMAL: ON BEING AND HAVING
* Ashley Hay
* Nam Le
ONE GOOD THING
* Paddy O’Reilly
* Tony Birch
THE DISCO AT THE END OF COMMUNISM
* Christos Tsiolkas
Your brother or sister, it might be said, is your other self—your grander, sadder, braver, shrewder, uglier, slenderer self.
Your sibling is your most severe judge, and your fiercest defender. You must always rescue them. They always abandon you. They abandoned you only once, and you will never forget it. They are a pain in the arse. They save you. They will not be conquered. They never leave you alone. They always leave you to pick up the pieces. They won’t grow up, won’t let you grow up. They are a gang, and you its weary leader, its exhausted captive. They still get off scot-free. They protect you from evil, from yourself. They are the stone in your shoe, the thorn in your side, the one who remembers things you won’t. They are the special one, your ugly mirror. They will not be fooled by your nonsense. They are the only one who makes you wake and worry in the stark, dark night. They make you laugh more and cry harder than anyone ever has, or will. They withhold things: little, silly things; bad secrets. They will never stop banging on about the
. They don’t care about you. They see through your bullshit. They are an unfillable well of need. They give you everything, and you take it all. They are still angry; you wish they would let it go. They are always telling you to let it go. A certain piece of music makes you lock eyes. You hate what they do to your parents. Your parents love them, not you, and always have. You have not touched each other since you were children. You can destroy their precious, hard-won idea with one glance. When calamity befalls you, they are first through the door. In a crisis they disappear. You only notice them when they’re gone. They will never be gone. They steal your clothes, it doesn’t matter; you own each other. Your friends think they are weird; they don’t understand. Your friends think they are great; they don’t understand. Your sibling is the only person who has ever hit you. You have never really hurt anyone but them. They are the loop, the circle of your life, and you can never break free. They have spent their life trying to break free from you, and it has broken your heart. They make you wish you were an only child. They are the reason you have an only child. They never speak to you directly, nor you to them: your lives are lived sidelong, desperate or tender or both, but you feel your shoulders touching at weddings or christenings or funerals; more and more, at funerals. One day it will be yours. They never mention your childhood. You recognise one another, this is your relief and your ruin. They are your duty. They stun you with the sudden presence and force of their goodness. They give you Christmas presents that show you are strangers. You are strangers. You love them; it cannot be explained why, or how. You can never forgive them, and you will die wanting their forgiveness.
The writers in this collection are as obstinately different from one another as your brothers and sisters are from you. They have written in surprising ways about the deep bonds—bad, beautiful or broken—between brothers and sisters, and, in one piece, about our abiding suspicion of that happy, foreign creature, the only child. Twelve stories speaking of love and fear, separation and tenderness, confusion and—sometimes—reunion.
When Patrick White’s sister Suzanne died, he wrote that he and she had nothing in common ‘beyond blood and a childhood’. But for so many, of course, blood and childhood is what haunts us, and always will. This book is for you.
I like the kitchen best because it’s the smallest and darkest room in the house. The little windows are overshadowed by a large pohutukawa tree, its knotted branches peering in through the window, tapping as the wind blows. Inside there is the soft orange glow of the oven light, the hum of the element as the meat cooks.
I’m sitting on the bench, watching my mother. I can see her hands—large brown hands, the skin slightly loose like a glove, the nails strong and oval, the polish, fading, in a shade called ginger jam.
She cups a potato and, sliding the knife beneath her palm, she chops four ways then takes another. Once the basin is full of quarters, she starts on the carrots. I watch the rings wheel across the board. She talks to me while she works—or rather I talk to her, coaxing responses from her. She gets into a rhythm with the knife, the soft flow of her voice punctuated by the chop-chop-chop as her arm cranks. Every so often she stops what she is doing, and with a sigh lifts a crystal glass to her lips. I watch the lump in her throat draw back like a syringe and the dark liquid disappearing. I can smell sweet fumes atomising in the warm air as she exhales: dry sherry and Oil of Ulan.
‘Tell me more,’ I say.
‘Well,’ she begins, ‘your father’s mother was a lady. Very elegant, despite the fact she’d given birth to eleven children.’
I’m impatient. ‘Just get to the swimming bit,’ I tell her.
,’ she says, luxuriating in the vowel as she thinks. ‘Your grandma went to Point Chevalier one day. And once there, she took her clothes off, folded them neatly and placed them on a rock near the water’s edge.’
I lean forward on the bench. ‘Was it winter?’ I ask, though I already know the answer.
‘Yes, it was winter. A cool day, quite blustery on the point. That’s why they knew she was not just cooling off, as you might in the middle of summer.’
’ ‘Well, once in the water she swam as far as she could, all the way over the low mudflats until the water deepened; and she kept going, and going, and going until the sea dragged over her like a silver blanket.’ She puts her knife down and looks at me. ‘And from that day onwards, Grandma was never seen again.’
‘Why do you think she did it?’
‘Probably because she’d had enough,’ she says, placing the potatoes around the meat.
It’s always the same unsatisfying response, but it doesn’t stop me from pressing her, as though one day something new might be added, something she’d not thought of before, that will make things so much clearer.
By the time she is spooning the juices around the pan I’ve moved her on to the story of my father’s brother, Jack.
‘How could you cut your own throat?’ I ask, fingering the corrugations in my oesophagus.
‘I suppose it would require some effort,’ she says.
would you do it?’
She makes a line with her lips as she looks at me. ‘Depression. It runs in the family.’
‘And what about Aunty Shona?’ I ask. ‘What does pulverised mean again?’
And when she tells me, I ask her, ‘What about her bones? Would they be pulverised?’
‘I’m not sure about the bones,’ she says, and for a moment I picture Aunty Shona’s bones, snapped like branches on the train tracks.
We hear the door open, my father clearing his throat. So often we forget he’s here. Most of the time he’s not; he’s up-country, travelling between doctors’ waiting rooms with his bag of promotional pills.
‘Hello, Mummy,’ he says as he steps into the kitchen. His voice is grave, and has been since he lost his job in management. I would never know the man she married, my mother tells me, for he is certainly not the one she has now.
‘Hello, Daddy.’ Her voice is brisk as she dries the chopping board, completely disguising the macabre conversation we’ve just had.
Turning to me, my father nods. ‘Girl,’ he says in a frowning voice, and I turn my head, showing him the edge of my jaw.
‘What’s going on in here, then?’ His voice is a tremolo of suspicion.
‘Nothing much, Daddy.’ My mother turns to smile at me. ‘Just chatting with Bubba,’ she says. Her voice is bright, and although I’m just a little girl, I know well enough that it’s a game. I’m inside the circle with her, and my father is on the outside. He’s not got the slightest idea what she’s thinking right now, but I know. I know everything about her.
My mother has no friends. She says she doesn’t have time for ‘that sort of thing’, as though friendship is a modern fad that won’t last. I am her friend. The best companion any mother could have. A little girl who loves her.
It seems her other children, years older than me, have amalgamated into one, joined together by their proximity in age and their ordinariness. Boy, boy, girl, boy. I arrived six years later, followed by the announcement there would be no family holiday until Bubba was old enough to travel. My mother tells me they’d not been on a family holiday before, and rightfully suspect that now they never will.
Rather than dote on me like any decent older siblings might, mine ignore me. When they do speak to me, it’s only to torment. In the early evening, when they arrive home from high school, they barge into the tiny kitchen where I sit quietly with my mother, talking or playing teacher with her as I run through the lessons I learned that day at school.