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Authors: Cate Kennedy

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BOOK: Like a House on Fire
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Up in under her arm, that's where it aches. That's what worries her. They say the biopsy will be a minor invasive procedure, a couple of stitches at most, but she can't help thinking of that scalpel like an apple corer, going into her flesh, pushing in and twisting.

‘You haven't written it on the calendar,' says Al when he comes in.

‘It's at 9.15.'

‘So you'll — what — get the 6.35 train?'

‘Yeah, I'll drive down and leave the car at the station for you to pick up. Then back in time for after school.' She pauses, then mutters, ‘Hopefully, I mean.'

‘Why didn't you write it up?'

She stops grating cheese, stares at him. ‘Why do you reckon?'

‘Chris, the kids know. I told them last week you had to have a test at the hospital. They're fine about it. No point making it worse for them, keeping it all secret.'

‘It's not going to be worse for them. They don't even need to think about it.' She looks down at the piece of roughened cheese in her hand, turns it to a new edge.

‘What do they call it again?'

‘A lumpectomy.'

She hates that word. Lump. The ugliest word in the English language.
. She thinks fleetingly of the story Hannah developed an obsession for when she was three, which she'd demanded over and over, night after night. The princess with all the mattresses who still couldn't sleep because of that tiny lump disturbing her all night long; that hard, resilient pea rising cruelly and insistently through all those downy layers.

‘Want a hand with something?'

‘No,' she replies, taking a teatowel out of the drawer and pulling open the oven. ‘I'm right.'

Hannah is off that story now. She's on to another one about a family who end up bringing two stray dogs home from the pound instead of one. Christine had fantasies when the kids were babies: of Jamie, three years older, reading to his little sister of a night in the big armchair. She'd imagined a golden halo of lamplight, polished floors, the straw-bale walls finally rendered and whitewashed, everything as clean and wholesome as a cake of handmade soap.

Instead, Jamie is forever setting up complicated wars of small action figures that bite painfully into your bare feet when you have to get up at night, battalions of tiny medieval knights with pointy plastic armour and shields. Hannah couldn't be less interested. Christine is having a few second thoughts, now, about the old nature-versus-nurture argument. What is it with boys and fighting? One hour of sanctioned TV a night, and still Jamie sprawls on the floor relishing battle scenes, while Hannah flounces and squeals like some miniature Paris Hilton demanding to wear nail polish to kinder. Where have they absorbed all this from, this nasty flotsam leaking in like battery acid?

You couldn't have told her, seven years ago, she'd be worrying about this stuff, any more than she would have believed they'd even have a television or electric heaters.

She remembers Al and her arguing over whether to render the walls with mud and cement or just mud — statistics about toxicity, about pure environments, about every bloody thing, things that buckled in the face of practicality and time. Now the solar panels are just a booster for an electric system like everyone else's, and to Christine that seems to sum up the whole experiment: it's a bonus, a gesture, a grand theory of sustainability modified to a more prosaic reality. The trees outside, which she'd imagined sprouting into a shady arbour, are taller and stalkier now but still unmistakably seedlings, painstakingly hand-watered from the dam and the bath. The piles of clay turned over by digging the house site still glint exposed through the thin groundcovers, and Jamie's BMX track has worn a looping circuit through the landscaping, turning her plans for terracing into an assortment of jumps and scrambles. Christine puts more wood in the firebox and, with a familiar mix of guilt and resentment, dreams her nightly dream of an electric oven.

It's not that she doesn't love the house. She does — it's just still so makeshift and unfinished. The spare windows are still stacked under a tarp in the shed, and they've spread rugs over the spots where the floor dips and cracks. You can't have a bath without bucketing out the water saved from the last one onto some dry patch of ground.

She can hear Al giving the kids a bath now. That's Al's version of a fun activity with kids — stick them in the bath and try to foam up some bubbles with the biodegradable shampoo.

‘Mum!' she hears Hannah bawling from the tub.


‘I need my SHOWER CAP!'

‘Get Dad to find it.'

Now Al's voice, muffled and distracted. ‘It's not in here.'

‘Have you looked in the shower?'

She hears the shower screen door open, then silence, a belated muttered thanks. Too late though.

‘My hair's ALL WET ALREADY!' comes Hannah's wail, followed by that whiny crying that always sets Christine's teeth on edge. Does Hannah do it at kinder? Do the workers there tut and roll their eyes about lack of discipline at home?

‘Shut UP!' comes Jamie's voice.

Violent splashing, then another high-pitched scream.

Why doesn't Al do something to intervene? She pulls open the big drawer with an irritated tug and gets out knives and forks.

Al had been the first one she'd told, of course, after she'd found it, late one night in the shower. She recalls his face as he raised himself on one elbow in bed, reaching for his bedside lamp, how he'd rubbed a hand over his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. Then the radiographer: how quiet she'd got, after the initial small talk. Christine remembers the sharply intent way she'd leaned her head closer to the image on the screen, her hand clicking, moving the mouse, clicking again, the light-hearted talk over.

Then the doctor, finally, looking through the ultrasound films as he made a point of giving her the reassuring statistics of how many lumps turn out to be benign. She'd hated the way he'd stared off over her head as his fingers had coolly explored the lump, gazing into the distance like someone solving a mental equation.

‘How does that feel?' he'd said.

‘Pretty tender, actually.' Trying to breathe normally.

Him writing something on her card, like his final answer in a quiz, before meeting her eyes again. Briskness and neutrality finetuned, as he said, ‘Best to take that out and have a good look at it, I think.'

Christine sits at the kitchen table now and listens to the wrangling in the bathroom, her husband's ineffectual protestations as the children fight over a certain squeaky bath toy they both lay claim to. From out of the corner of her eye, she sees the familiar tiny dark shape of a mouse run the length of the skirting. If she puts another trap out, she'll have to remember to tell Al to check them before the kids get up tomorrow. Finding a dead mouse is likely to set them both off, demanding a funeral and burial, which would make them late for school.

She gets up and finds two traps in the pantry, in behind the jars and plastic containers and the box full of herbal cough and cold remedies, valerian tea and rescue remedy. Back when the kids were born, she and Al would never have dreamed of treating them with any commercial preparations from the chemist. And they'd been lucky: the kids never got sick; she hadn't been in a hospital since Hannah was born.

Rescue remedy
, she thinks as she replaces the little bottle on the shelf. And can't stop her mouth twisting into a humourless, cynical curl as she dabs some peanut butter onto the mousetraps and sets them, pushing them cautiously back into shadowy corners with the tip of her finger.

‘Al!' she calls at last. ‘Will you get the kids out of the bath, for God's sake? Dinner's been ready for half an hour!'

She finds herself watching him, sometimes, still a little incredulous at the dreamy way he handles life, how everything seems to flow around him. Once at a barbeque held at the community centre where he works, she'd impulsively asked a colleague how he managed everything there at the office.

‘Oh, fine,' the woman had said, surprised. ‘Al just does his own thing, you know? It all comes together in the end.'

Here at home, she never sees it coming together. Everything, on the contrary, seems to be teetering on the verge of coming apart. That, or just sinking into neglect, like the wheelbarrow half-full of compost and the shovel which has been buried in weeds for over a fortnight, outside the kitchen window.

He never rises to the bait, either. Once, when he'd wandered in from the study and said, ‘What have you got planned for dinner?' she'd snapped, ‘What have
got planned?' but he'd only looked surprised and answered mildly, ‘Nothing. Is it my turn?'

He only makes one dinner, though: tuna and pasta casserole. Christine supposes she should be grateful he's so laid-back — relaxed with the kids, always in the same amiable mood. But he's so vague, that's the trouble, so blind to how much
she has to do around him to keep it all running. It's like she has three kids, not two.

Now she watches him dump clean folded clothes out of the washing basket onto the rug, slowly picking through the pile looking for fresh pyjamas for the kids.

‘Hurry, Dad! Hurry!' whines Hannah, jiggling naked and impatient on the spot.

Christine drinks in the sight of her strong little back, the sturdy muscles in her legs as she jumps from one foot to the other.

Al looks up at Hannah and raises his eyebrows, tickles her with one teasing forefinger. ‘Don't get your knickers in a twist,' he says, and Jamie guffaws with laughter at his sister, who complains even louder and kicks out at him. He aims his Jedi fighter plane warningly at her. Al doesn't even notice. He glances down at the pyjama top he's holding and with one distracted but surprisingly adept movement reaches his hand inside to the label and shakes it right-way-out.

If they do the tests in the afternoon, Christine wonders, will they keep her down there tomorrow night if the results are bad? She tries the word in her head, exploratively, trying to take the terrifying sting out of it.
Malignant. Malignant.
Would they be so prompt, or would some other specialist have to make the decision? Does she have tuna and pasta in the pantry, just in case?

‘I need a cardboard box,' Jamie announces after dinner, ‘for my school project.'

Christine finds him an old four-litre wine cask.

‘What's this for?' she asks as he cuts a hole in one end.

‘We're making models. It's going to be a little world, kind of. Like, I'm going to put blue paper in here, for sky? And some little sticks like trees. And when people look through the hole it's going to look like a real place.'

‘Wow, that sounds good. When does it have to be ready?'

‘Tomorrow,' he replies calmly.

God, sometimes he's so like Al it scares her.

‘Shall we go and cut some sticks and twigs, then?' she suggests.

He glances out at the twilight and shrugs. ‘OK.'

‘What are you going to stick them in, to make them stand up?'

She watches his serious seven-year-old face consider this, and wants to take his arm and plant a kiss on the faded temporary tattoo of Buzz Lightyear there on his skinny bicep.

‘Playdough,' he says at last.


‘Covered in grass so you can't see it.'

She feels the ardent rush of helpless, terrible love. ‘Let's do it.'

She feels it catch, like a little stabbing stitch, when she reaches up to snip off some wattle sprigs. In the armpit again, like it's buried in her lymph nodes instead of the pale, pliant skin at the side of her breast. She'd been showering when she first felt it six weeks ago, soaping herself after a dusty day collecting bricks for paving. Her fingers had brushed over it, and she'd felt her pulse leap and thud, racketing to the roof of her mouth, and traced her fingers back to the tender place, tasting sudden adrenaline like solder. Yes, like a pea, buried but resilient, a small sly sphere nesting disguised between layers of flesh and tissue. Keeping you awake all night. Wondering how long it'd been there unnoticed, and what it might be collecting darkly into itself, like a little Death Star.

‘What colour playdough?' she asks now, squeezing her arm next to her side, breathing deeply. ‘Are you going to do stars or clouds?'

As she makes tomorrow's lunches she watches Jamie at the kitchen table, assembling what he needs, pasting a pale sky inside the box with a gluestick as his tongue jerks across his bottom lip in concentration.

‘How long have you had this project?' grumbles Al when Jamie is nowhere near finished at bedtime. ‘You should have started it earlier.'

Al, whose half-finished bookshelves they all step over on the way to the carport, who leaves the wet washing in the basket at the line while he drives into town for more pegs, who can't seem to shut a drawer once he's opened it.

BOOK: Like a House on Fire
13.43Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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