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Authors: Cate Kennedy

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BOOK: Like a House on Fire
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‘You really do have to get to bed soon,' Christine says to Jamie.

His face goes mutinous. ‘There's these other kids,' he says as he pats chopped grass clippings down, ‘who always have their things ready on time? Always on the first day? Tomorrow they'll have theirs finished.'

He stares down disconsolately at the box and reaches in suddenly for the little plastic soldiers he's arranged in combat inside. ‘Got to take these out,' he mutters. ‘These aren't right.'

Warmth blooms briefly in her chest, tight and aching like tears.

‘Ten more minutes,' orders Al, who wants the kids in bed so he can surf the net on the computer he'd once sworn he'd never own.

Everything's quiet by the time Christine finds a packet of icy-pole sticks in the kitchen drawer. Jamie has gone to bed resignedly, and Al is in some chatroom, off in his study. On the table lies the box, some cotton-wool balls for clouds waiting till morning. She can imagine Jamie gluing them on as he shovels cereal into his mouth, how studious and intent his face will be. She'll be on the train by then, the city a polluted Gotham on the distant horizon.

Well, maybe she can surprise him. She reaches inside the packet and breaks three icy-pole sticks in half and digs the pieces into the playdough to make a perfect little fence in the box. When you look through the eyehole it's like a diorama, one of those stagy, rustic sets from
The Wizard of Oz
. She arranges some grass around the bases, then glues some of the sticks together and sets them on an angle like a part-opened gate.

Look at me
, she grins to herself, shaking her head.
I'm turning into one of those parents who take over their kids' school projects.

In the back of the wardrobe she finds an old handbag and removes a small mirror, which she arranges semi-buried in the grass, like a little reflective pond. Pokes the wattle sprigs around it, bending like she-oaks by the water.

It's 10.30 now. She catches another little galloping mouse-shadow in her peripheral vision, running across the kitchen floor into the pantry to disappear in behind the recycled paper and compost bucket, and she moves to set yet another mousetrap inside a cupboard. No wonder they sell the things in packs of six. She's back sitting at the kitchen table before she even realises, ducking her head to squint through the hole in the box. The trick is going to be letting enough light in the roof to simulate real sunshine. She hunts in a bag of Christmas wrapping in the hall cupboard and finds a square of yellow cellophane, cuts it to size and fits it between the layers of cardboard like a skylight. With the desk lamp she checks how the light will look. Golden afternoon sun pouring over an Enid Blyton countryside. Magic hour.

Al comes in yawning, sees her and chortles.

‘Don't even start,' she says. ‘I can't help myself.'

He puts the kettle on. ‘Hey, remember that papier-mâché volcano on display at parent–teacher night, that we were all meant to believe had been made by a kid in Grade 2?' He laughs again at the memory, scratching his head as he gets two cups out and starts stacking the plates to wash up.

‘I'm imagining the surprise when he comes down tomorrow,' she says. ‘But if I ever go any further than this, tell me.'

Al dunks a glass in the sink. ‘Don't worry about tomorrow, OK?' he says, after a while. ‘I'm sure everything will work out fine.'

She doesn't look up, but she senses him standing there with his back to her, washing the glass until it's way beyond clean.

Getting on for midnight. She sits back and stretches. Sand, that's what she needs. To glue round the edges of the mirror, to simulate a shore. She steps outside and takes a few pinches from the dark pile next to the paving bricks. One thing about living in a house like this: raw materials are never far away. She glues a wavy, natural line around the mirror, and sticks on some dry stalks like reeds, holding them in place with tweezers as they dry.

She knows Hannah's got some black plasticine somewhere, for some swans. Maybe in her toy box, or in her little desk? She creeps into her daughter's room, and stands listening to the rhythmic steadiness of Hannah's breathing, gazes at her sprawled sideways on the bed as if she's just landed from a great height. Hannah: healthy, respiring, her cells a blur of miraculously multiplying and flowering growth, life coursing through her, flawless, down to the last crescent-moon fingernail.

Christine, who once slept with a hand cupped around that tiny kicking foot, praying for a safe delivery, now stands holding scissors and a page of silver stars, making impossible bargains at the speed of light. Her own heart knocking in her chest and something else, something dark and airless, trickling through her bloodstream, that black, dense shadow on the ultrasound searching for somewhere to colonise. Her feet take her into Jamie's room and she stands gazing at him too. Her children, perfect, made with her own once-trustworthy body.

She gets up, silently, at five, nagged by an unfinished vision and the sensation of the night draining away. Out in the garden she's calm again, feeling the dew drench her ankles and the bottom of her white cotton nightdress. She can sleep on the train, anyway. She walks slowly through the hillocks and raised beds, seeing her nightdress billow like a faintly luminous ghost, pausing to inhale the deep spicy smell of the lemon-scented gum. She sees Jamie in the morning, milky-breathed and drowsy, finding the box, looking through the eyehole with a shock of pleasure, being finished early for once in his life.

She glances up at the house. Yellow light in the square window, her family sleeping warm and secure. She clutches the sprig of Chinese elm she's found, which will look just like an apple tree, and crouches by the pile of paving stones. Her fingers search blindly into the damp crevices of the stack. Somewhere in here, she knows, is some moss; cool and velvety, perfect for the distant green hills behind the open gate in that little microcosmic landscape.

She'll leave it at his place at the table, ready. And their lunchboxes packed at the front of the fridge, where Al won't miss them. For some reason, she keeps recalling Al, suddenly surprising her by shaking those pyjamas right-way-out with that one deft easy motion. She can't think why, but the image comforts her.

Back inside, the dawn light reaching the kitchen, she checks the time again: thirty minutes till the train, just over three hours till she's in that doctor's room again. She looks out the unpainted window at their little patch of bush, and at what's becoming visible out there — the ridges of hard clay subsoil showing palely defiant through the grass, like a healing scar.

Then, cold but wide awake and ready, she locates each of the five mousetraps she's set and kneels down in front of each of them in turn. Carefully, with the flat of her hand, she releases the springs so that the small metal trays of bait slip from the jagged hook holding them in place. She's humming to herself as she grasps each straining metal bar and guides it back to let it settle, with a benign and harmless snap, against the small rectangle of wood.

Like a House on Fire

First, the humiliation of purchase, in which I am forced to watch my wife and eldest son, aged eight, lugging the Christmas tree we've just bought to our car. The Rotary guy, who's sold it to me off the back of his truck in the supermarket car park, gives me a look he reserves for shirkers, layabouts, vandals and those destroying the social fabric by refusing to pull their weight.

‘Back injury,' I say to him, and he watches the two of them hefting it onto the roof of the station wagon, and just says, ‘Right.' Behind him, the graffiti outside Subway reads,
Only eight shoplifting days till Christmas
, which under normal circumstances I would photograph or at least point out to Claire, except she's busy passing rope through the open windows of the car, exaggeratedly checking her watch because she starts a shift in half an hour.

When we get home she lugs the tree into the lounge room and mutters, ‘I have to go.'

Very little eye contact these days, my wife. This is my fourth month off work with what my first doctor diagnosed as a compressed disc, a condition I have since heard described as a herniated disc, a ruptured disc, a bulging disc and, naturally, the good old slipped disc. Only two things to do if you don't want surgery, and that's rest and take fistfuls of anti-inflammatories and, of course, fail each week to bring home any sort of pay cheque. Claire clocks off from her hospital job, caring for helpless people who also lie down a lot, and comes straight back home to me.

That Saturday afternoon I do the very thing I'd promised my physio fifteen weeks ago I wouldn't do: namely, pull down the attic ladder after Claire's left and try dragging the boxes and bundles of Christmas tree ornaments out of storage. I reach for the two boxes and grasp them in my arms, then when I put my foot down to descend I feel nothing but empty air beneath me where there should be a rung, making me instantly panic and let go of the boxes, both hands reflexively grabbing at the ladder. Even the jarring as my foot bangs safely down on the rung below sends a jolt up through me, a warning jolt. A 1.8 tremor on the Richter scale.

The two boxes drop like stones and I can hear the assortment of ornaments inside crunch as they hit the floor. I stand still, letting a further loose tangle of lights and tinsel rain down from the attic and upon my head, and when everything that can possibly fall has finished falling, I step gingerly off the ladder and sneak a forensic glance into the smaller box to see that the whole ceramic nativity scene is shattered. The three wise men, who'd been fitted with unnerving false eyelashes so they look like they're sashaying off to Mardi Gras rather than Bethlehem, are smashed to shards. Every sheep and cow, every adoring shepherd, broken. Only the baby Jesus in his crib, one leg raised in that classic nappy-changing pose, remains miraculously unscathed.

‘Don't look,' I say to the kids as I carry the box into the living room like it's a cardboard coffin. ‘I've broken everything except the baby.'

Now for the humiliation of decorating, a pretence of decorating. The Christmas tree is where they've left it — lying on the floor next to the bucket of sand — and the three kids are all glued to the TV, something that's been happening a lot since I've been the chief childcare provider, although I don't know what Claire expects me to do when I have to spend hours at a time horizontal, staring up at the ceiling. The two boys look briefly at me then back to the screen, shrugging.

‘Turn that off,' I say. ‘We're meant to be decorating the Christmas tree.'

My eldest, Ben, swallows a mouthful of sandwich and mutters, still gazing at the TV, ‘It's only Evie that wants to.'

‘Is that right? What about you, Sam? Don't you want to do it?'

‘Nup.' A quick glance at his older brother for confirmation. Sam, who last year was worried about wetting the bed on Christmas Eve in case Santa saw it. Evie looks up at me with an anxious four-year-old's eyes, sitting on the couch already holding the tree fairy in her lap. They are eyes, it strikes me, that are all too familiar with endlessly compromised plans, as if life is already revealing itself to her as a long trail of small disappointments and changeable older brothers.

‘Come on, turn that off and let's do it,' I say.

Ben slides me a flat glance. ‘You do it,' he says. Eight years old and a voice perfected into grating delinquent surliness.

The thing is I can't, and he knows it. I can't even pick the tree up by myself.

‘Get up, both of you,' I bark, ‘and stand that bloody Christmas tree in the bucket! And the TV's not going back on till every last piece of tinsel is in place, do you understand me?'

I grab the remote to switch the screen off, then put it on the top of the bookshelf out of reach. That motion, swinging and lifting my arm to full stretch, feels like someone has taken a big ceramic shard out of the box — a remnant bit of shepherd, maybe, or a shattered piece of camel — and is stabbing it into the base of my spine.

‘Don't worry, Evie,' I say after a few moments. I need one ally, at least. ‘They'll do it.'

And I grit my teeth and help twist the tree down into the sand after the boys have sullenly dumped it into the bucket and found bricks to anchor it. Then I watch as they put up the decorations, shifting my weight from foot to foot, sweating with the pain, just to make sure I well and truly kill the occasion now that I've poisoned it. If Claire was here, she could be the one to lift Evie up to put the fairy in place, but Claire is shovelling mashed potato into the mouths of bedridden old people for $12.50 an hour, and I can feel my daughter hovering behind me, all fourteen impossible kilos of her, and I mentally run through whether I can brace myself enough to lift her up to head height to do it, whether I still have the upper body strength. When I finally psych myself up to do it, though, I turn to see she's not holding the fairy, she's holding a cushion.

‘Here, Dad,' she says. ‘Lie down on the floor.'

I go to the spot I always do, like a beaten dog. Next to the couch, where I can lower or raise myself gradually by levering myself onto it, where I lie each day and dread a phone call or a sneeze.

I have sunk to my knees, nearly there in that blessed prone position when Sam blurts, ‘Dad! Wait! What about the remote?'

BOOK: Like a House on Fire
5.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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