Authors: Charlotte Wood
I remembered how stressful my sister always found those get-togethers of the gingery Millers. The insouciant ways of the Spritzer Sisters, as she called them, the blithe, patronising attitude of Liz’s siblings towards ‘Monica’s kids’ made Sally edgy and self-conscious in their presence, and savagely mocking later. My shy sister always got plenty of sardonic material from family gatherings but they wore her out and in the end she’d given up attending them. My older, smaller sister.
Anthony was rolling his napkin into a ball. ‘Very commendable of them in the circumstances to take you both in. I guess it must have been spiritually fulfilling in its way to snatch you from the tribe. All Monica’s doing, I’ve been told, and he went along with it because of her infertility problems. Complex legal processes involved, health and cultural risks. Made it easier you two being pale, I guess. God knows
community doesn’t give up its waifs too readily.’
Some of the boys on the hill stopped surging and somersaulting to stare at Anthony and his noise. The sisters glanced up from their spritzers and cigarettes, shook their heads wearily and resumed chatting. Anthony bellowed on. Tired of the hubbub, a couple of boys made for the shade, brushed themselves down, drank some Coke and looked around for entertainment. Then they spotted the Slazenger bag, unzipped it, got out the bat and ball, set up the stumps and quietly began playing.
I joined the game behind the wicket. The bowler bowled properly overarm, using the regulation hard six-stitcher; the batsman struck the ball squarely back to him two, three times. The face of the bat and the panther emblem hit the ball correctly with sharp, efficient cracks.
Down the hill thundered Anthony. His pallor was gone and his curls were damp and stringy. Muddy tear streaks ran down his cheeks and spit frothed on his lips. ‘Give everything to me!’ he yelled. He raced up to the surprised batsman and snatched the bat from him; he took the ball from the bowler; he grabbed up the stumps. From the bitter ferocity of his glare, I could tell I had betrayed him.
‘What are you doing?’ I said.
From under the peppermint trees his mother sang out, ‘Ant, play nicely.’
For a moment he stood there undecided, with the cricket gear clasped possessively to his chest. Then he stacked it back into the Slazenger bag, picked up the bag and marched off down the park. He’d gone maybe twenty metres when something apparently occurred to him and he stopped, returned to the party table, collected all his birthday presents—some gifts still unopened—and crammed them into the bag as well. It was a tight squeeze: the panther was stretched to bursting.
Very businesslike then, a grim smile fixed on his face, he strode down to the river. I watched him go, just as grimly. The sea breeze had finally arrived, sweeping through the peppermint trees, and snappy little waves began breaking on the shore. I followed him but I wasn’t going to stop him. Surely this tantrum would soon play itself out.
Indeed, the bag must have become heavy because he had to haul it the last few metres across the sand and onto the jetty. Brushing aside skylarking wet children, curious onlookers, he dragged it the length of the jetty until he came to a pontoon just above the deep water. Then he heaved the bag into the river.
All that wood inside it, and the trapped air; it floated easily. A couple of children dived in and set off after it, then gave up. The tide was going out and the Slazenger bag sailed away into the bay and bobbed into the wide river estuary. I reached the pontoon, and sat down along from Anthony, and we watched the bag in silence until it was gone.
When my sister was eight, I was almost seven and my precious long-awaited brother was only a couple of weeks old, my father left for a year’s duty in Vietnam. A special car came to pick him up and we stood on the kerb outside the front fence to wave him off and, for reasons I couldn’t fathom, laughter bubbled up in my throat, weird hysterical giggling. My mother looked across at me with disbelief, her own face blotchy and swollen with crying. Later, during that year of his absence, she would refer to the inappropriateness of my reaction. ‘You were smiling when he left,’ she would say with incontrovertible finality, when the topic of missing him came up. ‘You were
.’ I was, too—there was no denying it—laughing, while his face gazed with desperate pale sadness at us from the back seat of the car, as we watched him fasten his seatbelt and grope for his sunglasses, the occasion as solemn as a military funeral. Many times I would remember my laughter rising uncontrollably like the last silvery spheres of oxygen from a drowning mouth. In the moment that bubble rose and burst I became a mystery to myself, and the knowledge of how easily this slip could occur burned like an oozing skinned knee, stiff with the jarring impact of an ignominious, unexpected fall.
On the wall in the kitchen our mother hung a calendar of a fighter jet, with all the months of the year laid out beneath it. Each morning, after breakfast and before the school bus, my sister and I would cross out another day as it arrived. We had to take it in turns to avoid bickering, taking up the pen ritualistically and making a big solid X. We were scared to bicker, conscious that the smallest transgression in that house, tightly wound around our father’s absence, might cause everything to fly apart. Still, that calendar began to mock us from the wall as we carried days away from it, crumb by crumb, like ants.
The airforce base sat on the flat baked-dry featureless plains west of Melbourne; the base itself and the aerodrome and fields and airmen’s quarters and the mess all secured with cyclone fencing and guard gates at either end.
A man in a uniform would check your car and open the boom gate for you, and if your dad was driving the man would look ahead into the distance and salute smartly as you drove through. With the exception of the Group Captain’s place at the end of the street, every house on the base was exactly the same. People tried, with different curtains and configurations of furniture, to express a little individuality in these houses stamped from identical prefabricated floor plans. They hung up carvings from their postings in Malaysia or displayed souvenirs and paintings they’d bought in Europe and the UK, but, ironically, because everyone had been to more or less the same few RAAF locations, even these ornaments gave the houses a familiar sameness. Everybody had a few carved wooden animals from Nairobi, and a set of watercolour prints of Paris street scenes. Everybody had lacquered raffia ottomans they’d bought from street vendors in quick onshore visits while crossing the Suez Canal on the boat on the way home, and a set of placemats depicting Britain’s stately homes. The houses themselves were surrounded by square patches of lawn and neatly edged rows of shrubs, zinnias and pansies. People generally planted annuals rather than perennials, things that would bloom for the year or two you were there, flowers that weren’t planted to last the duration, because they didn’t need to be. There was nothing perennial about airforce life.
We always felt perfectly safe, with the guard gates there—it was a rare occasion we had a babysitter, although social life on the base for the adults seemed generally conducted at a punishing pace of cocktails, dinner parties and dining-in nights. Our parents had already undertaken a posting in England, and so the ornaments and furniture in our meticulously maintained house seemed to have been wrongly set down there from some other posher, bigger house in another era—Wedgwood jugs on spindly rosewood-varnished side tables, copper coal scuttles, an antique
we weren’t meant to sit on, silver tea and coffee pots stored with dinner sets in the chiffonier. It always felt strange to sit on the lounge suite in the living room, like the cushions had somehow been plumped for someone more important than you, who might arrive at any time.
I loved my books, and pored over them like they were illuminated manuscripts. It was the stories in books which stayed clear and unchangeable; they were always exactly as I remembered them. In our square prefab house on the base and in the ‘portables’, the shoddy demountable classrooms of our school, it was real life that had a temporary, illusory air, as if every building in our lives could be knocked down or transported elsewhere instantly on someone’s whim. Stories were the constant—reliable and unwavering as a song learned by heart. You were allowed to keep some to put in your box when your dad got posted somewhere new, and even though everything would be strange and scary you could open that box and there were your dear beloved friends, waiting for you, still smelling exactly the same.
With a new baby in the house our mother required us to be good and helpful and not argue or drive her mad. We tried to stay under her radar and learn the complicated strategies required for survival. In this, like any kids, we were hopelessly outmanoeuvred, brilliantly kept in check—and, in fact, checkmated—by simple adult sophistication. There were eighteen months separating my sister and me in age, but our mother dressed us exactly the same, as if we were twins, although two more unlikely twins you’d never see—my sister was small and dark and pretty; I was fair, wore glasses and always looked untidy. Our childhood photos show us setting off for birthday parties in identical dresses, holding our presents under our arms, our fine hair scraped and coiffed with ribbons, cringing into the full sun for the camera. In others we sit with Santa in mirror-image outfits, smiling sheepish best-behaviour smiles, full of the sad, dutiful obedience of childhood. Our best dresses were squarish white-flecked pink, with a long thin bib of crimson ribbon edged in puffy lace. We looked, frankly, like a couple of Iced Vo-Vos.
We never questioned this, any more than we questioned the uniforms worn by all men on the base; it was as inviolable and irresistible as the weather. People who bought us gifts of clothes conceded to it as well, and purchased the same items, and our hearts would sink when we saw two presents predictably identical in size and shape appear. Other people seemed to have some instinctual understanding, though, that two sisters eternally dressed the same would nurture a secret longing for a splash of differentiation. They would buy the outfits in two different colours. My sister would receive the pink version, and I would get the blue. (Was I a tomboy? Was that it? Or just a bookish geek with glasses who meekly wore what she was given?) The clothes were always a little big, of course, so we could ‘grow into them’.
We stood and looked at our acquired personas hanging in the wardrobe, the identities that we would grow into, taken care of on our behalf. We were siblings, and so we were rivals—for favour, for attention, for bitterly contested territories invisible to outsiders. Every assumption that we were keen to wear the same clothes, or be invited on outings together, or be treated, in fact, as a single entity, made this opposition more precise, more obsessive, more intricately maintained. We never mutinied—we barely spoke. Instead, we hunkered down to sit out our childhood with cold-war enmity flowing between us like two opposing magnets. We divided our bedroom and our property into two exact and scrupulous halves, with invisible boundaries separating the floor, the wardrobe space and the items on top of the dressing-table. It was a covert inch this way then a retaliatory inch back that way, like the Battle of the Somme.
‘Don’t they look lovely?’ people said as we stood ready for photos, and we turned the corners of our mouths up obligingly, eyes front, neat in our identical dresses. Dreading the instruction
Put your arm
around your sister
How could adults do this—ignore reality and manufacture an instamatic cosiness that existed nowhere else? Were they satisfied with it, content to see their children bare their teeth in such stiff pretence of exuberance and spontaneity? When I look at photo albums now—not just my own, but everyone’s—I wonder about these moments summoned and preserved flat behind cellophane pages, this passing-out parade. I catch sight of an arm carefully around a shoulder, and I hear an adult voice behind the lens, instructing; I feel the duress, the prickling reluctance of skin-to-skin contact.
Over here, girls. Big smiles.