Authors: Charlotte Wood
I watch as, with her back still turned to the bench, she throws her voice over her shoulder.
‘How was your day, boys?’
‘That’s good. Tell me all about it,’ she says when they grunt back, but I can tell by the thoroughness of her tone that she is only pretending to be interested in what they have to say.
I wait as they bang cupboards looking for food, noticing the way the corners of their eyes seem to snag each time they pass me. Sometimes they can’t resist it and they have to say something—the words don’t matter, it’s the gruff jeering voices I can’t bear. When I put my hands over my ears and sing, sure enough they raise their fists and pretend to jab me. I have to scream and scream until my mother is treading on the spot.
I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it. I’ll end
up in a mental home,
‘Why don’t they like me?’ I ask her when she is calm.
The answer is always the same: they are jealous of me.
‘You’re a very special little girl,’ she explains. ‘Quite different to the others. I can sit and talk to you about anything.’
The more she tells me this, the more I embody her words, and the more unremarkable my siblings appear to me.
Although they are bigger and taller, I cannot look up to them. They don’t excel in any area of study at school, not even sport. Neither do they appear to be unique in any way at all, except for the simple fact one is a girl.
I can’t complain about her. When my father is home and I can’t sleep with my mother, I share a room with my sister. On the whole I find her an inoffensive roommate, mostly because she is barely here. She spends most of her time working at the dog kennels after school. And when she is here, her face is hidden behind two lengths of hair that are slightly parted, like curtains.
Sometimes when she is sleeping she opens her lids to find me looking at her from my pillow on the other side of the room.
‘Whaddayu want, face-ache?’ she growls.
I screw up my nose. ‘You’re a real mole,’ I say, and she curls her lip in a way that makes me laugh.
‘Shurrup,’ she says, not
up, like me. My sister has poor elocution. I speak like my mother, who won first prize when she was a little girl for her recital of ‘Daffodils’ by William Wordsworth
‘She’s a funny little thing,’ my mother says, as though it is my sister who is smaller than me. ‘She really has no conversation. I never know what to say to her. Does she talk to you?’
‘Sometimes she barks at me,’ I say to amuse her.
‘Oh, you’ve got a sharp wit, Bubba,’ she says, ruffling my hair. ‘You’ll go far.’
Every so often my mother surprises me with the declaration that there will be no school today. Instead, we are going on an excursion. We sit on the train, our shoulders touching as we rock from side to side, looking out the window at the milky bays and inlets, and the oat.coloured sheep on the hills. Once in the city we disappear among the old government buildings, passing ministries, police headquarters, legal chambers, until we arrive at the criminal courts. My mother examines the list with her fingernail for the best case. She has a preference for sexual assaults.
‘Nothing like that will ever happen to you, Bubba,’ she reassures me later.
And I tell her I already know that, for I will hardly have anything to do with such rough types as the Mongrel Mob or Black Power.
Other times we drop in to see the Prime Minister in the Houses of Parliament, as though he is a personal friend, or we take a tour of a radio studio or newspaper printing press. I am guided around by a staff member like a visiting dignitary, while my mother stands back, her two hands shyly clasping the handle of her bag.
I have the impression with all these visits she is grooming me for a bigger life than the one she has—one in the outside world of politics, communications and justice.
‘You can be anything you want,’ she shouts in my hair as the train roars through the tunnel towards home.
‘What about the others? Can they be anything they want?’ I yell back, fisting popcorn into my mouth. I’m testing her theory, for surely if she believes those hopeless lumps can be anything, she is not a reliable source of information.
I wait as she thinks for a moment, and by the time we have exited the dingy light of the tunnel for the outer world of sky and space, she says, ‘I’m not so sure about the others.’ The disappointment in her voice is reassuring.
‘Why?’ I ask, encouraging her.
‘Well, they don’t have the same interest in the world as you and me. We’re different. And I suppose I didn’t have the time to give them as I do to you. There were four of them under five. What was I to do? Take them all with me? I couldn’t possibly.’
She’s off track. I don’t want to hear about her or
I want to hear about
how different I am from them, from her too, for surely she does not think I will ever be like her, cooking, washing and ironing.
‘A mother can only do her best,’ she is saying. ‘No one is ever satisfied. Never.’
‘But I’m satisfied, Mumma.’
Her eyes cast down her shoulder at me, sadly.
‘You’re the best mumma in the world,’ I say, looking up at her.
As we face forward again, I see our heads tilting together in the glass at the end of the carriage.
‘One day you’ll grow up and leave me,’ I hear her say. It’s spoken lightly, but my response is firm.
‘No I won’t. Never. I will always need you to look after me.’
I like to go into my brothers’ bedrooms when they are out, to check their pockets for coins. I also like to go through their drawers and feel about for things. Sometimes I find copies of the same magazines I find under my father’s side of the bed, ones with large glossy pictures of girls. Their arms and legs are folded up in the creases of the pages, and I like to stretch them out like a picture book, then fold them up again. I know these are the sort of girls my brothers like. Pretty ones. Not the slags and dogs I hear them snicker about.
I look to the place they split open with their scissor fingers, then their bosoms, and finally I look at their faces. I spend a lot of time peering at their big soft eyes and kind smiles, noticing the way they seem to be looking at men like they love them. I never even look at my brothers, or my father, without turning my head away, just as they, too, avoid looking at me. One day I put my wall mirror on the floor and try to smile just like the girls with my legs open wide, but my forehead looks stern and my tummy thick and white—also I have a birthmark on my thigh that looks like dirt.
‘Don’t worry. Everything will grow. You have nothing to worry about,’ my mother says when I show her the pictures. ‘You’re your mother’s daughter, and men
me, I can
you,’ she adds with a sneaky laugh. ‘But you’re right, Bubba. You must learn to smile more.’ She rubs my cheek with the backs of her fingers. ‘You must learn to look happy and bright. Men like that most of all.’
I don’t eat what the others eat. My mother makes me all my favourite foods. Chippie and Vegemite sandwiches, pancakes, ginger crunch, butterfly cakes and biscuits made with chopped-up chocolate. I have taken to shattering the biscuits and sorting through the broken pieces like a palaeontologist, brushing away the crumbs until I am left with the dark brown lumps. I toss the remaining pieces back into the tin for the others. I’ve found that the same pleasure is to be had in a new tub of hokey-pokey ice-cream. I pick out all the tiny pieces of golden sweet, as small as babies’ teeth, using my large spoon like a gardening trowel.
For dinner, my preference is potato. My mother cuts through the roasted skins, making a lumpy grid into which the gravy soaks. I like to have my dinner on the Goldilocks stool. I call it that because it has a broken back. It’s just the right height for me to sit at the open oven door with my plate on my lap, enjoying the remnant heat, free from the clattering of knives and forks of the others, who are hunching in front of the TV.
‘This girl is not getting proper nutrition,’ my father tells my mother. He has left his job to become a sickness beneficiary these days and is hanging around the house.
‘I know, I know,’ she says. ‘She eats what she likes.’ And I can tell from her tone he’s got her flustered.
‘Well it’s not good enough,’ he says.
I’m indignant at the gruffness of his response and I inform him in a loud voice from my corner of the bench that he doesn’t have any control over me. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t respond, just gives me a dark, resentful glare.
I watch as his face gradually becomes monochromatic, the only hint of colour about him the sallow shade of windbreaker he wears for his long walks on the grey beach below our house, a long stick for a companion, seagulls crying in his wake.
‘Will he kill himself like the others?’
‘No, darling. He’s perfectly alright,’ my mother says.
‘But he’s had a heart attack, hasn’t he?’
‘Yes, but lots of men have heart attacks. Most even continue to work.’
We’re disappointed in him. We often have to share the kitchen with him now, and when he’s not in the kitchen, we hear him as he creeps around the house, as though he knows he’s not meant to be here, creaking on loose boards, shutting doors so quietly that the latches barely click. We’re unnerved. We can’t stand it. He makes our shoulders stiffen, our throats dry as the air thins around us and the space shrinks.
My mother makes a shuddering sound, like someone bracing themselves after a cold dive. ‘My
he’s changed, Bubba. You have no idea,’ she says, banging her crystal glass back down on the bench.
‘He had the big company car, the big salary. He was going to be the general manager, then poof.’ She clicks her fingers. ‘It was all snatched away. Just like that. Lives can change without a moment’s notice.’ She puts a cigarette in her mouth and strikes a match, and for a moment I enjoy the strange smell of gunpowder.
her,’ I overhear him say one day as I crouch low at the kitchen door.
‘I don’t know what to do with her,’ my mother responds. ‘She’s well and truly beyond me. She wears me down.’