Authors: Margo Lanagan
was born in 1960 and grew up in Raymond Terrace (New South Wales) and Melbourne. She has travelled to places around the world, from the Nullarbor Plain to Paris, been to university and worked in factories, kitchens and offices. She gets her best ideas while washing the dishes.
Margo lives in Sydney with her partner and their two sons.
Copyright © text Margo Lanagan 1992
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher.
A Little Ark book
This edition published in 1998 by
Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd
9 Atchison St, St Leonards, NSW 2065 Australia
Phone: (61 2) 9901 4088
Fax: (61 2) 9906 2218
E-mail: [email protected]
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
National Library of Australia
ISBN 1 86448 445 4.
eISBN 978 1 74343 218 1
Cover design by Beth McKinlay
Text design by Steven Dunbar
For Steven and Jack
Finn was asleep when the drunk pitched the bottle into his bin. He had a quick dream about a chloroformed handkerchief being pressed over his nose and mouth before waking up to the foul hot urine smell in his sleeping quarters. He flung the bottle out the flap—a stupid thing to do, litter your own front doorstep with broken glass. But he was that mad.
By the time he’d woken up enough to decide to get out, the old guy was halfway down the street. Not that Finn would have done anything to him, except maybe swear at him a bit. Finn was slight, built for running away rather than standing and fighting. ‘Wiry,’ his mum would say in a proud voice. Wimpy, he would reply in his mind.
Wimpy and piss-smelly. His hand shook, holding the lace-trimmed baby singlet, trying to dry off strands of his hair without wetting his fingers or his face. Down where the street ended in a square of cold lamplight, the drunk
shambled and muttered. Disgusting old bugger.
The singlet and half the bag of baby clothes were soggy and smelly—some well-meaning mum’s work all wrecked—and his bin reeked so badly he might never be able to use it again.
The fumes came warm and strong past his nostrils, and he could feel the damp hair drying against his scalp. It was getting a bit longer than he liked it now, a
longer than his dad could ever stand. Long ago his dad would have slapped the eight dollars down on the breakfast table and said ‘Gino’s this afternoon’, before grabbing the paper to cover up his sour morning face.
But he didn’t want to think about his father. It made him feel fouler than ever. He wanted a tap with cold water in it—he didn’t mind if it was a bit rusty to start with. Nothing could be worse than being bathed in some filthy drunk’s piss.
He took up a fleecy baby blanket that was only splashed at one corner. Gingerly he picked up the garments by their drier parts and tied them into a bundle in the blanket. He sniffed his hands afterwards, and the smell made his mouth twist.
He didn’t know what the time was, but he guessed three or four in the morning. The nights up the Cross went through distinct stages that Finn could hear from his bin. There were the prowling hours, which went to just past one in the morning—he knew that from the days before his Swatch battery died. The place was packed with cruising traffic, tourists and the kind of crowd you would search if you were hunting a kid like Donald Finley. Then the wild hours started, when all the nice people went home and the quiet was punctuated by the yells of resident mad people, or drunken bucks’ parties, or people fighting. And after that, these dead hours before dawn; cars would occasionally blunder through, sometimes you’d hear a couple of cats
yowling or someone crying, but it was mostly peaceful until the place ground into action again, deceptively morning-fresh, painfully bright in the November sun.
Finn’s hair was nearly dry, but when he ran a hand over it he heard it give a little crunch. His lips felt dry and scummy, but he couldn’t bear to lick them. He spat in the gutter, then spat again, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his grubby white T-shirt.
He chose a block of flats that had been painted white, its fence too, so that he could see clear down the side path to the concreted yard behind. Nipping down the back, he willed the occupants to stay asleep.
A brass tap gleamed about a foot above a drain. It was one of those wide-mouthed taps that whistled and shuddered and flung water out almost sideways. Finn pressed the back of his head against it. He rubbed his hair and face, then shook his head and combed his dripping hair back again.
It didn’t take long to rinse out the damp clothes. Finn enjoyed it, thinking how the next baby who wore them would never suspect. Lucky baby, too—a lot of the stuff looked hand made. Last of all he rinsed out the splashed corner of the blanket. He turned the tap off, looked up and jumped about a metre. An ugly face was glaring down at him from the window, a row of metal curlers trained on him like gun-barrels. Swollen old knuckles rapped on the glass, and the woman was shouting something angry. Her mouth was all caved in from lack of teeth.
Finn tied the blanket around the wet clothes. As he left the window-rapping woman behind, he was overtaken by a memory of Greenlawns Nursing Home, where his gran lived. While here all the surfaces were sealed and resilient, up there the great old house breathed through all its silvered weatherboards. The verandahs seemed to manufacture cool
air out of the endless sunshine, and the lawns only just held back the coils and sproutings of the forest. The inmates sat through the slow rhythm of their days, talking mostly about Greenlawns itself, the food and ‘the girls’ who ran the place, and leaving long pauses in which Finn listened to the forest shift and stretch.
This last year, Finn had almost qualified as a resident, he’d spent so much time there. The Home was about halfway between school and his mum’s place, and it’d seemed almost cruel to walk past without saying hello to his gran and Barney and Mrs Stanwick and ‘the girls’. Besides, they had afternoon tea and biscuits, which he was just about ready for after the long walk from town.
He’d sit and chat and be treated like (and sometimes be mistaken for) every patient’s favourite grandchild, every nurse’s younger brother. He was so welcome there . . . Finn put his head down and strode along the empty street between the parked cars.
Sometimes he’d stay for dinner, even. He’d help the nurses shuffle the inmates into the sitting room first, and assemble the ones who wanted to watch
in a close semi-circle around the blaring TV. During the ads he would switch off the sound while the old people commented on what they’d just seen. There’d be a long pause, then someone would say, ‘Well, she’s no better than she should be, that Nancy.’ Assenting grunts would come from the depths of various armchairs, then Mrs Stanwick would say, ‘Lovely frock that red-headed girl was wearing, don’t you think?’ And the same grunts, and perhaps a ‘Lovely!’ would emerge. His gran would keep her eyes on the TV, and a little smile would light up the good side of her face. Afterwards, while the others were being helped into the dining room, he’d talk to her about what had happened, what
tomorrow’s episode might hold. Her smile would glow a little more brightly and she might give a nod that was only just distinguishable from her usual, constant nodding. He would wheel her in to the dining room, and a nurse would help her eat dinner.
Once Sarah had said, ‘Do you want to help your gran tonight, Donny?’, and he’d said ‘Sure,’ and picked up the spoon, but his gran’s good hand had reached for the nurse, and she had given her head a definite shake.
Dear Gran, Hope you’re well. Things here are okay, Dad and Janet and Alex fine. There’s not a lot going on, in real life, that is, though plenty is happening in Paradise Row, hey? Say hello to Kezia for me, hey? Get her to make that bread-and-butter pudding and have a double helping for me. Yum. Wish I was there. Lotsa love, Donny XX
His mother could hardly bear to think of Greenlawns, let alone spend time there.
‘She’s just not the Mum I know any more,’ she’d say, and Finn could understand that. Before Gran’s strokes Mum and Gran had thrived on arguing with each other. Together they’d produced an embarrassing amount of noise, punctuated by great bursts of laughter. The last year up at Casino, though, had been painfully quiet for his mum. She’d tried to fill it by talking more herself, by bringing friends home from work, throwing dinner parties, turning the stereo up loud. But it wasn’t the same as having Gran drop in from the granny flat down the back of the property. ‘I miss that crazy old woman sticking her nose into everything,’ his mum had confessed. ‘I don’t know what I think about anything any more, now that I don’t have her to hammer at.’ And she’d laughed a sad laugh and begun wiping down the sink—her
housekeeping, now that Gran wasn’t nagging her about it, was gradually getting more thorough, more efficient.
Finn didn’t mind so much. Only sometimes did it distress him that Gran wasn’t the lively, slightly woolly-headed woman she’d so recently been. She’d kept the most important part of her personality—she was the gran
had always known. All his life she’d been giving him those doting looks that told him he could do no wrong, that he would always be better than perfect in her opinion. Now that she couldn’t speak or fuss around the way she used to, it was as if her approval and love of him had become more focused. When her eyes met his, her face would come to life, would start transmitting that fine, strong beam of light to him. It had nothing to do with everyday life, with Greenlawns, with her illness—it was a timeless acknowledgement that he was wonderful for just existing. After a sweaty day in the school rat race, it was just what Finn needed.
The thought that saddened him most these days was that of his gran propped in her chair on the verandah, nodding, her eyes completely empty.
Dear Donny, Shelley here, writing for you’re Gran. She’s doing just fine, happy as larry as per usual. Kezia won’t do puddings with the summer coming on, greedy. You’d have to put up with tinned fruit salad. You’re gran wants to know did your Dad move house or else why are you c/o the P.O.? Sends her love, and hi from all us girls. Shelley.
He had to push the pictures, and the pain, far back into his memory. He’d found that if he let them loose, they tended to multiply until he thought he might just blow up, he was full of so many different, uncontrollable feelings. In the past couple of weeks he’d learned to distract himself. Desperately
he focused on the roughly patched road, counted the cars lining the street, calculated the number of steps back to his bin, and began counting his paces.
He passed the mouth of a laneway, glancing in idly, then backed up a few steps and gaped, his counting arrested. The luminous person from outer space took no notice of him. No, he realised, it wasn’t a space suit, but protective clothing, a one-piece white plastic suit that booted the feet, gloved the hands, helmeted the head. The gas-mask face was blank, bug-eyed, and a thick tube ran from the nose and mouth into the suit’s chest.
The gloved hands held a snaky black pipe like the hose on a vacuum cleaner. One end was directed into a gridded drain-hole among the paving stones; the other was attached to the underside of a squat, grubby tanker backed into the lane. The whole pipe twitched with the chug-a-chug of the pump; the person in the suit had to work hard to aim the pipe properly, and the boots of the suit were splashed with spillages.
Finn had breathed in two uncertain sniffs before he began to gag. He tried to shut off his nostrils, but then the thought of taking the smell into his body through his mouth sent his empty stomach into a spasm. He ran away a few yards, sniffed experimentally, then gulped fresh air.
He looked back. The laneway seemed perfectly innocent. With a little sunlight, its worn stone pavers and the mellow brick of the old stables could be quite attractive. He walked back and stuck his head around the corner. The bad air hit him at the bridge of his nose. His lungs refused to expand. He felt as if his skin might wither and his hair fall out just from contact with the air; to breathe it would be death, without a doubt.