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Authors: Tara June Winch

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Swallow the Air (6 page)

BOOK: Swallow the Air
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He is there. We are at the side of our old house.
He's crouching beside Mum's racer with a spanner; he's tightening the bolts on the wheel rims. In one hand he holds the bike frame above the cement and with the other spins the wheel round, where the red and blue buttons slide up and down the spokes. He looks over to me, smiles, because he hears the car pulling into the driveway. ‘Stay here and play,' he says as he rounds the corner to the back of the house. Through the walls I hear the spanner; it thuds against a void, and then shatters the bathroom tiling, that chiming noise. And it's just a mess of skin now, slapping and slow pounding. ‘You fucking bitch.'

Midnight whimpers, so faint, so light as if never of a victim. We see it through the crack of our bedroom door. Billy and me, watching Mum's head swinging into the cupboards, her crazy hair flinging into her own bloody mess. ‘Don't tell me to get a fuckin job.'

He's run out of yarndi, he heads inside the house, clearing the back steps. We hide in the corn stalks that Mum had planted. We don't huddle together, Billy and me – we are separated by the violence.

Mum is in the shower. I can see him in the
kitchen; he's boiling the kettle. I see the steam rise as he rips the jug cord from the wall and disappears into the hallway. This time she screams. His aim was always perfect, like sunsets.

And Mum could grow her hair see, leave it out and let it go crazy. Let it hide melting skin. It's a shame women are so clumsy. Let her hair go crazy, like they thought she was, crazy just like he had made her.

I remember now, my mother was a beaten person. She wouldn't scream at his fist, she wasn't the type to fight his torments. She bottled all the years too; until one day all those silent screams and tears came at once. And with such force that they took her away. The screams must have been so deafening, the river of tears so overflowing that the current could only steal her. The flood breaking so high, that she had to leave us behind. We couldn't swim either.

Mum's stories changed when he left. She became paranoid and frightened of a world that existed only in her head. Who was going to beat her mind? Dad wasn't there anymore, but she still saw him, he still managed to haunt her. I remember the madness, the fear. Was he hiding under
the bed, Mum? Was he in the cupboards reaching out for your wrist? Was he under the house? Is that why you dug up the backyard? Why you became blank and told us nightmares instead of dreamings?

Poor Mum.

And now, I could let him go. Because only when I remembered, could I finally forget.

I tugged on the drawstring of my hood and walked back to the truck. I waited until Pete threw himself up into the cab and rocked with the suspension.

‘Bit outta control there, hey? Only in Darwin, bare-knuckle fights. Only in the Territory! Don't worry; you'll never see that again. So, where to in Darwin, which resort are you staying at my lady?'

‘I'll get out on the highway; I'll be right on the highway, Pete. Gotta go back, I forgot something.'

The Block

I'm in Sydney, in a pagoda sipping Japanese tea or a castle where I wait for a carriage made of baked pumpkin to take me from here to anywhere but here. I had pumpkin soup at a street kitchen yesterday but the taste was shit. I could do with a feed, a good feed. Sleep was fine, but that free food was a load of rubbish, no one ate there unless they were real desperate. It's a weird neon place forever decorated as Christmas, a forgotten stretch of Pitt Street stone.

I'd headed south that day, I remember, in the passenger seat of the backpackers' station wagon, the foreign voices dousing the sunset colours of the Top End. The shiny bits of the car sparkling red like all the blood I'd ever seen or imagined. It was then that I knew Pete was right. I knew that I would never see anything like that again.

The trip ended in the middle of this mad city.
I arrived with my heart still hurting and my head still spinning. I realised I hadn't cried at all since I'd left Wollongong. My eyes began to harden like honeycomb. It got easier to do, being tuff.

I spun into the clogging traffic and muffled voices and tides of ironed pleats and searched for the nearest tree. These buildings were like a bed of sprouted nails; I dragged my fingers across them, smooth granite, marble, mirror glass, sandstone and pebble. Around and beyond the still life, for miles, was a crawling, prickly blanket of identical houses and roads.

In the middle of the chaos I found Belmore Park, directly opposite the station. Lining its bitumen streams were massive fig trees with strong muscled roots that cradled strangers and split open the otherwise faultless lawn.

In the centre of the park, through the scattered yellow-brown maples, is a little brick house, a hexagon with a parachute cover of mouldy tiles as the roof. The sign reads Belmore Park Depot, but people call it all sorts of names – the pagoda, the gazebo, or the first floor. I'd rather think of it as a castle, when you're up there you feel as if you're sleeping under the stars on the
battlements, a balmy night in some fairytale village in a cartoon, with its fancy steel stake fence that wraps around the rooftop. But the cartoons don't scream and ambulances don't ribbon the streets clean of its spilling blood, drunken businessmen don't get rolled and the gangs from Chinatown don't come to do deals. The cartoons have bullshit happy endings to make people hope, for a prince or a hero to save us from whatever it is, the dragon or the robber.

I didn't need to be saved; I wasn't waiting for a stupid hero.

But one came anyway, not in a costume, but wearing a purple t-shirt, and baring too-perfect false teeth.

ya little cunts, ya up there aren't yas?'

I was awake already, lying on my side watching the branches dance. I propped myself on my elbows at the sound of her voice and dragged my belly to the fence to look over the edge. An old woman with white hair neatly combed and parted stood staring up at me.

‘Little sis, who are you?'

‘May Gibson.'

‘Any young fellas been round ere?'

‘Nah, haven't seen any.'

‘Well whatcha doin up ere anyway, May Gibson? Get down ere and talk to ya aunty girl, what ya doin sleepin round ere, bloody

I threw my leg over the metal stake and slid down backwards, wondering what a
was. ‘Just needed somewhere to stay,' I said, looking at the ground.

‘Well don't be shame now, everyone need somewhere to stay. Some people got it and some doesn't. Come stay with the women and me. Beats being around bloody strangers, you got family in the city too girl, come have a feed.'

I nodded, remembering the shit pumpkin soup, and climbed back onto the ledge to pull down the blankets and my bag. The old woman was already walking across the park, I ran up beside her. We walked fast across to the station. The city seemed to become softer behind us, quiet, as if we were the only people in the place.

At Central I went to the toilet and washed my
face, holding my head under the dryers, feeling the wetness swim to my hairline and disappear. I looked into the mirror.
You got family in the city too girl, gunna show ya where ya don't belong dumb black bitch, you don't look like an Abo.
The words swam in my ears. When I looked into the mirror I saw a girl, lost and hollow – the same as every other fifteen-year-old, I guessed. I didn't see the colour that everyone else saw, some saw different shades – black, and brown, white. I saw me, May Gibson with one eye a little bigger than the other. I felt Aboriginal because Mum had made me proud to be, told me I got magic and courage from Gundyarri, the spirit man. It was then I felt Aboriginal, I felt like I belonged, but when Mum left, I stopped
Aboriginal. I stopped feeling like I belonged. Anywhere.

We got the train, only one stop. As we stepped onto the platform she told me I was to call her Joyce, if I needed to find her ask for old Joy. ‘Just stay with us women and ya be all right, little sissy.'

Joyce coiled her thin fingers over my wrist and walked me faster up the steps and across
the bridge. The place was heaving with people, people walking with groceries and prams and kids, people boozing, people laughing, people being. The walls of the bridge were covered in massive paintings of black faces and flags painted to look as if they were flying high in the sky. We walked through another park, much smaller than Belmore, without trees, nothing except a couple of dead-looking cabbage palms in the middle of a circle of pavers. A wall followed the railway lines covered in more huge paintings. The houses were tall and narrow and as we swept down past a row of them I noticed they made a kind of square, like the walls of a box. People started to call out, yelling Joyce's name and asking who I was. Joyce just kept walking, leading me by the wrist.

The door was opened; Joyce led me through and shut the door behind us, clamping the handle with a chair.

‘Sit down, sit down,' she pulled out a cushioned crate from under the table.

The house was small. Paint flecked the cement walls crumbling around photo frames. So many faces. Joyce put the pot of water on the stove
and looked back over her shoulder at me and then to the wall of people. ‘This is my family,' she said admiringly and started to point at the smiles, ‘ daughter Justine and my other daughter, she's dead though and...'

She dissected the whole puzzle, taking a few frames off as she spoke and wiping the inside of her shirt on their glass covers, second cousins and great grand kids and aunties and mother's brother's uncles.

‘We're all family here, all blacks, here, from different places, but we're all one mob, this place here...'

She pulled back the dirty lace curtain; we looked out onto the cement and tar.

The terraces colliding into each other. Rubble edging fences. Rubbish clogging gutters. Mothers screaming fathers or brothers or cousins. Uncles drinking, thinking under bread and butter. People giving their whole dole to the bowl that is empty, that they turn right over as if they got plenty. Drug smuggling thugs the mothers. Baby cries for others. Fits uncrucify the losers. The grinning winners looking down from two towers. Metal rods flog
on the grog. And they're spitting
and spinning out. And some places don't sleep, only drown.

‘This here a meeting place for our people, always. Welcome to the Block, little sis.'

That was my first contact, the rest just got more confusing but easier, until I just became immune to it all. Growing up in the bloody Gong was nothing compared to a year living in the Block. I went in like a buttery cake and came out like a shotgun or a Monaro or a gaol sentence. Came out like a steel wall adorned in black tar.

I stayed with old Joyce most of the time, her and her daughter Justine and Justine's boy Johnny. They were my family, and I loved them.

Most nights at Number 7 Caroline Street Joyce and the other aunties would stay up yarning and playing card games like jackpot and drinking sweet wine until all hours of the morning, around the same time when the bonfire in the park would start to whimper, and sirens would be sunk out with the silence. I loved staying up with the women and just listening, chain smoking and sipping hot sugar tea all night.

In the day Joyce and I would talk between us. She'd tell me all about growing up on the Block,
about how her nanna had come and taken her back to Sydney when she was only little, a bit younger than me. She came here and worked in Wilson's paper factory, making notebooks and writing pads. She laughs about it now, stretching back the loose skin over her porcelains and pointing across the street at the flat ground. ‘Just there,' she says, as if she can still see it with her own eyes, as if she can still smell the watery bleach and warm, smokey fibre of the paper, ‘that's the old factory.'

She told me about the history of Redfern, about the housing corporation stealing everyone's money and homes, about how it used to be a real strong community. ‘And now,' she says shaking her head,
‘it's the young fellas taking our money as well and the drugs stealing our community.'

Joyce said the place was broken most of the time, but sometimes, mainly Sundays, it was beautiful.

I grew to love Sundays too, dry days when the flat ground turned into a churchyard and most people smiled big.

When you start to not feel the punch that lands on her face, when you begin to see someone's broken heart instead of someone's bruised veins, when you know that cuz needs a beating to sort him out, you begin to see love more than hate, that real sort of love, the sort that's desperate and always fighting. Fighting to be heard and stay.

Joyce always made sure I was inside by dark, always made sure I had a feed. I wanted to buy food too so Joyce helped me get a job. Her cousin's missus' brother used to work at a carwash and he told Joyce that they'd give me a job. Shit money but it was cash in hand so it was good for the business see. I did end up getting the job, for a while anyway.

Things seemed to be going good, but sometimes Joyce would put the hard word on me, after she'd had a couple of sherries and all the aunties had gone home. And the bullet would always drop somewhere in the middle of my ribcage.

She was packing up the cards one night when she cornered me about my family. ‘So...' she said with a caring prying tongue, ‘where's all your family, girl?'

‘After Mum died, we went and stayed at Aunty's and Billy, well he–'

She interrupted with a jabbing finger, her jet eyes bolting ya face. ‘I know all that, May, what about your nannas? You got old dobs in yer mob like me?' She straightened up against the table, making herself look taller and tipping back her head all prided. ‘Go on, what about ya old girl, her mob, where they?'

‘Dunno, she left us so long ago, I remember stories though and I know she's Wiradjuri – from out west isn't it, Joyce?'

blood girl? Well all ya mob's probably out ere in the park drinkin.'

She bellowed laughter across the walls and glass-covered faces. They smiled back.

‘Yeah, yeah,' I said, forgetting where I was.

She caught me.

‘Ninganaa little one, have some respect.'

She was serious.

‘Now listen good,' she said, pulling out a crate again. ‘I know ya like it ere, but it's no good ere little one. You know what I'm talkin bout, no good young dobs growin up in this ere, and I'm gettin too old to be worryin all the time bout
ya, specially after that carwash business the other day ... I know, I know you got ya young sissy girls ere and Johnny, but you, May, you got people that you gotta find, things you gotta learn. You
learn them ere, but I don't want you to. Look at Justine, smack the only thing teachin her now! You gotta go, May, you got sumthin to find, fire in the belly that ya gotta know. See all the
now, they got the fire too, but people in the city always gunna try put it out, then it outta control. You know, like trying to put the fire out with petrol. It ain't workin. Not while government puttin fear on us.'

She took another mouthful of sherry. ‘Think about it, May Gibson. Who they Gibson mob anyway? They gotta be somewhere out there.'

I felt shamed, like she didn't want me there anymore. I pulled a loose thread from the armchair's doily, unravelling its sticky string shapes. I sat there silent until Joyce packed up the cards, took her sherry by the neck and went upstairs. The lights flicked off the staircase and the house was dark.

Sadness crept over my hands, over my body and for the first time in Sydney I cried. I cried floods
that washed down to the city quay and filled that dirty harbour. I cried all the way to Waterloo, I cried the hoarding off old terraces. I cried with the rest of us.

BOOK: Swallow the Air
11.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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