Authors: Charlotte Wood
I know she doesn’t mean it. It’s awful. My poor mother has to say these things to defend herself. I can hear the exasperation in her voice. She’s tired. Worn down by his constant lurking presence, his grey shroud of a face. And now, to shut him up, I hear her rattling metal in the utensils drawer, then the sound of her whisking something, frantically beating the sides of the bowl.
‘Divorce him,’ I tell her when the kitchen is ours. ‘He doesn’t make you happy.’
She laughs. ‘Oh, Bubba, you are such a funny little girl.’
‘Am I?’ I say, frowning at her, for I certainly don’t feel very funny. I miss not waking up next to her. I miss not seeing the sheers at her windows blowing in like veils.
‘I love your daddy,’ she is saying as she picks up her crystal glass. ‘He’s my husband. He’s the father of my children.’
’ I say. ‘The others are hardly children. They’re old enough to look after themselves.’
‘This girl’s scalp is yellow,’ he says to my mother as I loll around on the carpet after a long day at school, twisting and stretching like a cat. ‘When on earth did she last have a bath?’
When on earth . . .
I’m astounded by his melodrama.
‘I have no idea,’ I hear my mother say. She’s hesitating at the entrance to the lounge, her wet hands frisking guiltily over her apron.
‘Well she needs a bath—
,’ he says, with such confidence.
‘I will not have a bath,’ I say. I’ve developed an aversion to water since my failed attempts to swim and I will not put my face beneath its surface. ‘I will not!’ I shout at him. ‘I will not!’
‘You will have a bath,’ he says. ‘Mother, look at her scalp,’ he commands. I’m appalled by this sudden authority over my being, this late arrival, this johnny-come-lately, and it seems my mother is too, for she won’t look at my scalp.
She says she knows nothing about it, ‘Nothing at all.’ And she turns her back, and disappears into the dull light of the kitchen, her hands flapping at the sides of her head.
My brothers, who ran wild during my father’s trips away up-country, have since found a sense of purpose and unity in his presence. Hearing the rising tension, two of them arrive like henchmen to lend a hand.
‘We’ll take her feet,’ they offer, leering at me as they drop into a wide-legged stance. They inch towards me with stalking movements, haka-style, their raised palms shifting erratically in an attempt to bamboozle me.
‘She’s like a wild pig,’ one offers excitedly as I ram my heels back and forth into the carpet. My kick is wild and off the mark, the childish limb flailing hopelessly in the air.
I hear my father breathing hard above my head now; his hands hook under my armpits, he’s struggling to restrain me.
‘Come on now,’ he’s saying. ‘Come on.’
‘It’s not easy, mate. She’s a bloody mental case.’ The reference is more loaded than they realise, for only I know the family history. They wouldn’t understand it, my mother has told me—it’s not their thing.
I grow frightened as the muscles in their jaws jut forward in a grim overbite. Determination is taking them over. In the uplift, one of them swipes at my calf and finally grabs hold. Now I have one leg free, heel hammering the floor like a mallet.
My mother’s crashing pans in the kitchen.
‘Mum,’ I cry. ‘Don’t let them do this to me. Please don’t let them do this to me.’
‘Stop it,’ she cries back. ‘Stop it, stop it, stop it. I’ll have nothing to do with it. Nothing. You can all go to hell. I hate you. I hate the lot of you.’
She’s increased the stakes.
‘You little bitch,’ spits the one with the softer flesh. Humiliated by his fear of being hit by my shoe, he finally chops my calf with the side of his fist. ‘Got her,’ he says.
I can smell them as they cart my body down the hall. Sharp smells of meat and urine—or is it me? My legs split apart, my dress gathered around my waist; I’m slumped like kill. I wrench my head from side to side—like a lunatic, I imagine—but I can’t tell if it’s really me or just an attempt to summon the family demons I’m sure I must carry inside me.
Someone has turned the water on for the bath. It beats against the enamel like a torrent as we approach. Too small for four in here, they don’t know what to do with me.
‘Do we take her clothes off?’ one enquires.
‘No, no,’ I beg, writhing my hips in mid-air.
‘Throw her in as is,’ my father says. ‘Just pull off her shoes.’
I feel them yank at my feet. I hear my school shoes fall like clods of earth onto the tiles.
They have to fold me between them to fit around the door, and now with our bodies all drawn together in a grisly show of unity, I gather my spit and fire at the cheek closest to mine.
‘Bitch,’ a voice snarls, and I’m let go, falling into the pounding water.
I’m surprised by the soft landing. My clothes seem to expand to catch me. Looking down I see my smart school tunic rising to the surface, the wide green pleats swaying like leaves, brushed cotton ballooning on my arms, long white socks still standing stiff to attention. And now, surrounded by defeat and wetness, I sob for my loss of dignity.
Quietly, like a final word on the matter, one of the boys looks down on me. His lips fat with contempt, he says, ‘Who will marry that? No man will ever want her.’
Of everything that has been said and done in the last five to ten minutes, this is what makes my breath stop, for I realise he doesn’t see a little girl dumped in a tub of water, but rather the beginnings of a madwoman. I take a breath into my belly and let out a long and final cry into wilted air.
As usual, it pains me to see my eighty-five-year-old mother waiting for me on the pavement outside the cafe. We meet most days, out of habit. She knows I’m never on time but she refuses to take a table on her own. A rational side of me realises that if I was a better daughter I’d be on time, but I can’t bring myself to do it. Part of me wants to make her wait.
She’s wearing her little red shoes. They are flat with round toes and straps that button on the side—like Clarks for five-year-olds. Around her neck, I see the gleam of her Good Conduct medal, awarded to her by the Sisters of Mercy in 1937—medallions are in fashion, she says, and it’s gold, something of value. Unlike me, she has little of value.
The golden curls are long gone. Her hair is white these days, shaped like a basin and cut square around her eyes. As she spots me, she rises up onto the balls of her feet like a little girl in her cotton plus-fours, flexing her surprisingly shapely calves.
We sit at one of the small round tables, my mother taking the padded bench against the wall. She pats the vinyl for me to sit next to her,
all the better to hear me
, but I decide on the bentwood chair opposite, placing the large sack of washing I am carrying between my feet.
We now live in a little town on the east coast of Australia. It’s been years since we left New Zealand, shortly after my father died at sixty-two. Not by his own hand. They called it
, but I’m more inclined to think it was a general sense of failure. They were sad times, my mother says on reflection, but then on other days she says they weren’t sad at all, we were all perfectly happy.
I often feel like we blend in with the locals in our straw hats and shorts, as though both of us being here was part of some grand plan, but in truth my arrival was pure coincidence. The others, of course, think it was destiny. You’d think I’d taken her hostage, reading the cards on her mantelpiece:
Is she being good to you Ma? Come and visit
us, if she’ll let you
It’s all in good fun,’ my mother says, when I read these lines out loud. ‘You know they like to tease.’
I watch her now as she lowers a globule of honey into her coffee and twirls the spoon. ‘How are the children?’ she says, smiling up at me.
‘That’s good, darling. You look a little tired. Are you tired? I
worry about you. You run around after them far too much.’
‘I don’t run around after them too much,’ I say. We’ve been through this so many times before. ‘I just want the best for them. Like you did for me. Remember? You took me everywhere.’
She smiles weakly.
‘You did do it for me, didn’t you? You weren’t just bored?’
‘Of course I did it for you,’ she says, smiling as she lowers her lips to the cup. She’s looking up over the rim now—I can see dark smudges in the crumpled hollows beneath her eyes, irises milky green with failing sight. Today she’s applied a fish-scale shimmer above her eyelid, too much on one side. Her lashes, just a few, are like broken stitches, and her eyebrows have completely disappeared apart from a couple of in-grown hairs. Lately she’s been talking about having them tattooed back on, but she says it costs too much. And besides, she’s too old, she’ll be dead soon. I’ve noticed she’s since invested in a pencil from Woolworths, approaching her brow bone like a landscape artist with impressionistic flair. I’ve seen the pencil in her pink make-up bag in the bathroom when I’ve looked through her things, curiously examining the facial fluff collected on its worn stub where she’s dragged it savagely across her skin.
I say to her, ‘I think you need to rub your eyebrows in a bit. Just lick your finger and give them a rub.’
She tosses her head, taps the table with her nail as she observes the room with a critical stare.
‘Don’t look like that, now. I didn’t draw those barbs on you.
did,’ I tease.
But the nail keeps tapping, slowly, like the tail on a cat.
‘You’re mocking me,’ she says in a leaden tone.
I seem to be very good at mocking her. My siblings, on the other hand, I’ve noticed treat her with special reverence, as I suppose a mother should be treated, honouring her as it says offspring should in the Ten Commandments.
We wish for her twilight years to be as free
from pain as possible
, one wrote to me in a rare email last year.
take good care of her.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ I ask her. ‘What have you been saying I do to you?’
My mother often tells me my siblings actually look up to me these days.
‘And why would that be?’ I say, disbelieving.
‘Because you’ve traversed the world, you’ve done big things.’ She is flattering me.
’ I say. ‘You mean because I have a university degree.
‘Well it is to some,’ she says, and then she goes on about them being good, simple people over there, earthy, with their hearts in the right place, as though that’s got something to do with me having a degree.
‘Where exactly are you going with this?’ I say, and she says she doesn’t know, she has no idea at all.
‘They have their own lives now,’ my mother says when I ask if she misses them. ‘They have their own families and partners. You don’t keep your children forever.’
‘But they’re all still there, aren’t they? Sharing their lives. And we’re not.’
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ she says with a shrug. ‘I don’t know how much time they actually spend together. Birthdays, maybe. Christmas or New Year, perhaps.’
I often find myself thinking about them all when I’m out jogging. It’s usually towards the end when I’m tiring and I need that extra boost to get me home. I square my shoulders and look straight ahead, but on the sides of the road I can hear them calling to me, whipping their fists.
Go, Bubba, go
, they cry
. You can do it, Bubba.
And it’s then I feel my heart bursting and my legs breaking into a gallop, as though I’m heading for the finish line, the gold medal.
My mother is staring into space now, her jaw quite set when she’s not remembering to smile.
‘What are you looking at?’ she says with a start.
‘Nothing,’ I say.
‘You were looking at me. Very critically. I know you were.’
‘You weren’t even on my mind,’ I say drolly.
‘Hmmm. Charming,’ she says, and she pistol-grips her chin and looks narrowly down her nose at me.
‘Don’t even try to look intelligent,’ I say. ‘You look like some D-grade actor.’