Authors: Charlotte Wood
She laughs. ‘Oh. Am I
transparent?’ And she throws her head back like Marilyn, her mouth wide open as she smiles. It would be impressive if she was thirty years old and I was a man.
Now she’s raising her finger. ‘Ahhh,’ she says, her head back on straight. ‘I knew I had something to tell you. I got a lovely call from your eldest brother last night. We had a nice long chat.’
‘That’s nice,’ I say. ‘Did he ask after me?’
She lengthens her neck to think. ‘No, actually, he didn’t mention you at all.’
‘And I suppose
didn’t mention me either?’
I wait, impassive, as she smiles. ‘Hmmmm. Let me think. No, I don’t think I did mention you. Not everything revolves around you, you know.’ She looks at me shrewdly.
‘I wasn’t for a moment suggesting that it does. I just would have thought my name might have popped up, in passing, as it was a long call. And I live here. I see you every day. None of them ever call me.’
She shakes her head. ‘I’m not getting into this.’
?’ I say.
‘Come on now. You know very well they’re funny about you.’
‘What do you mean,
? In what way?’ I ask.
‘Oh goodness. I don’t know. They’re probably jealous,’ she says.
‘Oh, your big house. Your flash car. You’re big-time to them. You know what they’re like over there. They can be very small-minded.’
‘Why are you talking like this?’
But she’s waving her hands now. ‘Oh no. I’m not going back over it. I’ve had enough of all that.’
‘Nothing. Nothing. I wipe my hands of it.’
‘That’s not fair,’ I say, leaning across the table. ‘You mustn’t say things like that without explaining yourself.’
‘For goodness’ sake, it’s all in the past. Leave it alone,’ she drawls.
‘It’s not in the past. It’s still
,’ I hiss. ‘And I don’t know what I’ve done. Tell me what I’ve done.
would you just tell me what I’ve done?’
‘I won’t. You’re nothing but a bully. I know it’s my fault. I know I ruined you. But even as a baby you ruled me with a rod of iron . . . that
of yours. My God you could bring the house down. It’s no wonder the others didn’t like you.’
‘That’s an awful thing to say. You really are becoming a very nasty old woman.’
She looks over her shoulder, her arms clamped tightly across her chest. When she turns back, I see she’s become calm and dignified.
‘I’m not nasty,’ she says, her voice high in her throat. ‘All I’ve ever wanted in my life is peace and quiet. I’m a simple person. I’m a Swede. I’m a pacifist.’
‘You’re only a quarter Swede,’ I say impatiently. ‘Now tell me what I’ve done to them. I saw them only a short while ago and they were perfectly nice to me. Please tell me what I’ve done.’
She shakes her head. ‘I don’t know. I really don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m here with
. And not there with them. I really don’t know. Oh dear
I’ve had enough of it all.’ She crumples. ‘I really have. I could die. I could die right now.’
This is what I do to her.
And soon you will be dead
, I think.
really will be dead and I’ll be alone
. And I’ll feel slightly responsible, perhaps even more than slightly responsible—who can tell until it happens.
‘I’ll get going now,’ I say, and I stand up, noisily scraping my chair across the floor. I wait as her brown fingers burrow into her purse for coins—they look far too big for such a small purse.
‘I’ll get it,’ I say, and her catch snaps shut.
‘Thank you,’ she breathes, exhausted.
When I come back from the counter I see she is on her feet, my wretched sack of washing bulging inches off the ground, its tie twisted around her brown knuckles. For just a moment she looks eighty-five years old.
‘I’ll take that,’ I say.
‘No, you won’t. I’m quite capable, thank you very much.’
So I walk on, out of the cafe, her following behind.
It’s so sunny outside. Our squints have the effect of smiles as we stand facing each other on the hot concrete of the car park.
‘I’ve got yesterday’s washing in the car. It’s all beautifully clean and pressed.’ She looks rueful. ‘I’m really very good, aren’t I?’ Then she tilts her head so that her hair shines. ‘What would you do without me?’
‘I really don’t know,’ I say as I pull her to my chest. I close my eyes tightly, squeezing the moisture from them. ‘I’m sorry,’ I say as I kiss the top of her head. Her hair feels as soft as duck feathers as I stay there, resting my nose and lips upon her crown.
Anthony’s skin was so white, almost translucent, you could see the veins fanning out from his temples into his rusty curls. The vulnerability of those electric-blue wires shocked me; sometimes his skull looked like a physiology poster. At the same time, the eggshell frailty of an orphanage or illness seemed to cling to his body. When he had his shirt off for the bath or beach there were those eerie neon veins again, beaming out from inside his chest.
I tried to paint him a few times but I find children difficult. They come out either too sentimentally cherubic or Hollywood demonic. In oils Anthony looked like a changeling, with a wily old face. And I couldn’t resist the veins—maybe I overdid the cobalt. Anyway, the paintings met with strong disapproval from the Miller sisters, pale redheads too, who maybe had Renoir and innocence and velvet suits in mind, and they were destroyed before I could reuse the canvases.
Even in real life he didn’t appear a normal West Australian boy, neither tanned nor sunburnt, not freckled or peeling, more like a vitamin D-and-protein-deprived European waif from yesteryear.
Just off the boat
, as they used to say. Dickensian poorhouse. But he wasn’t sick or poor, just pallid and thin. And he was actually a fourthgeneration Sandgroper, and only half orphaned, and now that a temperamental flush masked his veins, and his curls were unravelling in the summer humidity, he was the image of my father.
It was Anthony’s birthday party, and in the cricket game taking place in a municipal park of buffalo grass sloping down to the river, a match he had insisted on, he’d just been clean bowled for the third time in a row.
It was torture to watch. He was trying out his new Slazenger cricket set, my present to him: a cricket bat, ball, pads, gloves, stumps and bails which came in a nifty PVC bag with the Slazenger panther emblem leaping in full horizontal stretch the length of the bag. It was expensive but I’d wanted to give him something sporty and manly, something we could do together and maybe shift the gender balance a little. Make him not so milky-pale and veiny. He was always surrounded by women and I felt guilty for not paying more attention to him in the past couple of years when I was living it up. Painting hard, yes, but also playing hard. The usual recreational activities. Anyway, if his flushed cheeks and boisterous eagerness to test the cricket set this afternoon were anything to go by, he loved the gift.
But now he was clean bowled again, and he refused to leave the crease. Even as he flailed around, his glowering, determined face—my father again—seemed to say,
Are you all mad?
Why should he go out? What idiot would swap batting for bowling or, even more ludicrously, fielding? Batting was the whole point, wasn’t it? It was
new cricket set and he was the most important person here, especially today of all days.
Not surprisingly, the fifteen party guests fielding in the park this January afternoon were losing concentration and patience. Of course the birthday boy had been allowed to bat first. Uncle Brian was bowling underarm, and had substituted a tennis ball for the hard cricket ball—and, what’s more, had bowled him out three times already.
All over the park, young fielders were flopping down on the ground and sucking twigs and peering longingly towards the river or the party table that Anthony’s mother and aunts were setting up under the peppermint trees. The kids had given up on having a turn with the bat and now they wanted to swim or eat; at this rate there’d soon be an uprising. Oblivious to the general restiveness the three Miller sisters were drinking their customary spritzers and laughing while they blew up balloons and tied them to the trees’ branches, special balloons that said
Happy 8th Birthday Anthony!
I was wicket-keeping. Because I wanted him to succeed, and I wanted the cricket set to be an appreciated gift, I was torn. But eventually I said, ‘You’re really out, my man. Give someone else a turn.’
He swung at another slow underarm ball from Brian, and missed again. I trudged uphill after the ball while he thumped the grass in frustration. But he still didn’t give up the bat.
Unusually for a Perth summer afternoon the sea breeze hadn’t arrived and the day gave off a sullen chalky glare that stung the eyes. In the river below us, other shrieking children were bombing and diving off the jetty—non-party guests having a better time than us—and becalmed yachts lolled in a deepwater bay as smooth as oily glass. Ageless impressionist subject matter. You’ve also spotted the scene in a hundred atmospheric summer photographs: skinny showoff boys caught mid-air, spread-eagled between jetty and water. Even at my age I envied them. Already my shirt was sticking to me from all that trudging after the missed balls. The buffalo runners had an annoying way of gripping the ball and stopping it from rolling back down to me.
‘Don’t be a bad sport,’ I told him. I was feeling disheartened as well as hot. Anthony was ruining the party mood. As I threw the ball back to Brian, I said, ‘Don’t bowl any more until the spoilsport walks.’
Brian looked for direction to the women with the spritzers and balloons. In the shade of the peppermint trees the Miller sisters had taken off their sunhats, revealing three different hues of red hair in gradations from vivid orange-peel to mercuric-sulphide pigment to dark rust. They had cigarettes going, too, which interfered with their balloon-blowing efforts, and every now and then one of the women would gasp and giggle and her half-inflated balloon would escape, spinning, blurting and farting crazily over their heads.
The dark-rusty one, Liz, Anthony’s mother and my stepmother, glanced at us. ‘I hope you’ve got sunscreen on, Ant,’ she said.
Brian looked back at me uncertainly. ‘Show him again how to hold the bat.’
Jesus, Brian was being
. He was twenty-eight, married to the youngest Miller sister, Jeanette, and in our occasional dealings the seven years he had over me seemed to give him the advantage. But in the matter of Anthony, I felt I had the upper hand. Brian was only Anthony’s uncle by marriage, and even less related to me, not my family at all. Anyway, I had deaths on my side. Two deaths gave me the edge.
‘Here we go again,’ I said. I gripped Anthony’s narrow shoulders and spun him side-on to the bowler. The panther emblem was stamped on the bat as well. I twisted the bat handle around in his hands. ‘This is your last ball,’ I said. ‘Keep a straight bat. See that panther on the bat? It should face your right leg. Defend your wicket. Take it easy. Don’t swing like a dunny door.’
He squirmed free of my hands and shuffled back to his incorrect stance. If he swung the bat from there he’d not only miss the ball again but knock his wicket over. His eyes had an oddly familiar shine. My father’s old Dewar’s glint, his Johnnie Walker midnight-aggressive glint. ‘Go shit-fuck-shit away!’ Anthony growled. ‘I don’t have to take any notice of you!’
My God, he needed a smack. ‘That’s not even proper swearing, Paleface,’ I said as I walked off.
When I arrived at the restaurant, an outdoor seafood place in the Fremantle fishing harbour, he was already seated. An unusual choice for Anthony, I thought; not fashionable, overly marine-themed, with a table of bluff Yorkshire accents and porky pink skins on one side of us, a tidy arrangement of Japanese on the other. There was the usual network of wires strung above the tables to discourage seagulls, and several pleading
Please Don’t Feed the Birds
signs. The tourists were ignoring these deterrents and hurling their chips into the harbour, where diving and wheeling gulls enjoyed uninterrupted and raucous access.
I’d suggested the lunch at my stepmother’s behest. ‘What’s he doing with his life?’ Liz moaned. ‘Can you find out and give him some advice, put him right?’ According to her, Anthony had abruptly left Angela and their two children, tossed in his partnership with Fairhall Burns Corrie, turned vegetarian, and was ‘living with some hippie witch in a mud hut up in the hills’.
I think she thought I was more in tune with low-life ways. Painting and bohemia and all that. It sounded like an early midlife crisis to me, a middle-class cliché, but at this stage Liz was phoning me in tears every night with news of Anthony’s latest New Age transgression. ‘He’s killing me. I don’t understand him anymore. He’s acting all superior to everyone, angry and touchy-feely at the same time. The hippie witch must have some eerie power over him.’