Second prize ($5,000), 2016 Griffith University Josephine Ulrick Literature Prize
WE STAYED AT Uncle Jack’s holiday house for Christmas. It was an old fibro house near Batemans Bay threatened with bushfire every five years, the wooden floorboards gritty with sand, no matter how often they were swept. Mum and I shared a room with two single beds. It was so bare, monastic. There should have been a crucifix hanging on the wall. I was sixteen.
Uncle Jack and Aunty Tess were down at the beach with their twin six-year-old sons. I wore my swimming costume, a navy Speedo one-piece, which I usually wore to squad training. Mum was still in bed, facing the wall, curved into foetal position. Her blond ponytail curled on the pillow behind her.
‘Are you coming to the beach?’ I said, pulling on a T-shirt.
‘Not feeling good. I’ll give it a miss.’
I put on thongs and grabbed my towel from where I left it the day before, hanging over the door to dry.
‘Did you want something before I go?’ I said. ‘Panadol? Water?’
I went to the kitchen and put ice and water into a plastic jug and added lemon to the water as Aunty Tess had taught me those holidays. When I returned to the bedroom with the jug and glass, Mum was sitting up. She began to cry. ‘That’s so lovely,’ she said, searching for a tissue in the pocket of her pink cotton nightie.
‘It’s not worth crying over.’
Mum laughed, still crying, brittle and hesitant. Then she stopped.
‘I haven’t got a bug.’
I felt the floor slide under me.
She was stunned, the tissue at her nose.
‘No. Not cancer.’ Mum sighed. ‘Pregnant. God. Sit down, Caroline. You’re going pale.’
I stayed standing.
‘I’m thirty-three. Child-bearing age,’ she said, speaking more to herself than me.
‘Whose is it?’
Mum snorted. ‘Yes. They’re queuing at the front door, aren’t they?’
‘Of course it’s Tim’s.’
‘Is that why he’s not here?’
‘He needs to think. That’s what men do. They think after the fact. He’s gone up to the Gold Coast. Lots of men there, thinking.’
‘Are you going to have it?’
It was the wrong thing to say. I knew that even before I said it.
‘I’m not going to dignify that with a response, Caroline,’ Mum said, her hands clasped between her knees in an upside-down prayer, staring at nothing. Her gold crucifix hung from her neck and it seemed like a noose to me.
‘You go down to the beach now with your Aunty Tess and Uncle Jack,’ she said. ‘Look at their twin boys and have a good think about that terrible question you just asked me.’ She lifted her face. ‘And you keep this to yourself.’
‘People will work it out, Mum.’
‘I mean these holidays. I mean Aunty Tess and Uncle Jack. I haven’t told them yet.’
‘How could you be so stupid twice in a lifetime?’
I left the room and the house, ran to the bottom of the garden, banged the gate after me and tore through sand and scrub to the beach. The sun was already high. The gums tossed in the breeze, flashing silver.
You won’t believe what Mum has done now, I wanted to yell to Aunty Tess; but I avoided the yellow umbrella that shaded her and the twins, and the area where Uncle Jack surfed. I swam near the rocks, waiting for a kamikaze wave.
MUM DIDN’T EAT dinner with us that evening. She stayed in the bedroom all day except to go to the bathroom to vomit, mumbling that it must have been something she ate. It wasn’t convincing – we had all eaten the same meals for the last three days.
During dinner, Aunty Tess took a plate of Saos into Mum. I heard their low murmurs and the bedroom door close. Aunty Tess didn’t reappear. She must have closed the door after her and stayed in the bedroom with Mum.
Uncle Jack’s gaze fell on the long, deep scar that ran from between my eyes to my hairline. I was in a car accident when I was nine. Mum was driving and I was in the front passenger seat. The plastic dashboard split on impact, cutting me across the face.
‘It could have been worse. At least you’re not a vegetable,’ Mum said, whenever the subject of my scar arose. In that accident, I also broke my arm, my leg, and had a collapsed lung to go with the nineteen stitches in my face. Mum broke her collarbone. The woman in the other car stayed in intensive care for four weeks.
Mum was charged with negligent driving and dangerous driving causing grievous bodily harm. She had been on the wrong side of the road, distracted, spaced out. In court, Mum blamed it on a coughing fit, but I couldn’t remember her coughing. Not that they asked me. She went to jail for six months and I lived with Uncle Jack and Aunty Tess for that time. Mum didn’t have a car after that.
I started swimming as part of my rehabilitation. Uncle Jack drove me to training at 4.30, four mornings a week. He continued after Mum was released. On those car trips, he told me what it took to be him: a pharmacist with three stores; living in Vaucluse (‘worst house in the best street’) with an architect briefed to demolish and rebuild; a holiday house on the South Coast; a Land Rover and a BMW; and the ultimate goal of owning a yacht and docking it at Rushcutters Bay. ‘Not bad for a boy from Blacktown,’ he said.
I thought about all of the hard work he had done and I thought about his neat hands on the steering wheel and his aftershave – wood and lime. It was the scent of achievement.
He brought me breakfast to eat after training, packed by Aunty Tess the night before. She stuck little notes to the cling wrap. They were short and encouraging, with kisses and hugs. Mum wasn’t one for kisses and hugs.
But then, it seemed that no one would ever want to kiss or hug me. Not properly. My face was hopelessly unkissable. No one had even tried. At school we were studying Auden and that line replayed like a chant when I saw my reflection in the mirror:
THAT EVENING, AUNTY Tess was in the bedroom with Mum for a long time. The boys left the table for their permitted thirty minutes of television before bed. I finished my dinner. Uncle Jack stared at my scar and I knew he had worked it out. Aunty Tess emerged from Mum’s bedroom ashen faced and said in a forced light voice, ‘Jack. Can you come here for a moment?’
I washed the dishes, wiped down the table and the boys’ chairs, and swept the floor. Uncle Jack and Aunty Tess were still speaking with Mum in the bedroom. The boys’ half-hour of television had gone beyond anything they could dream of and they were quiet, watching The X-Files. I brought them bowls of dessert: too much ice-cream, too much chocolate topping. They looked as if they had gone to heaven. The blue light of the television flickered on us as we ate, transfixed by Mulder and Scully and the sugar.
I heard Aunty Tess say, ‘God. The boys.’
She stood above us, looking down at them – with their ice-cream-and-chocolate faces – and then at me. She clamped a hand over her mouth and started to cry. Uncle Jack got cross and told her to take the boys to bed.
‘Caroline, you’ll need to sleep out here tonight,’ Uncle Jack said. ‘Your mum’s still not well. You won’t get a wink of sleep being in the same room.’
He pulled out the sofa bed and went to the linen press in the hall. I heard Aunty Tess say, ‘What are you doing? Not those ones!’ and then she entered the lounge room, hugging sheets and blankets to her chest. Her eyes were red. We made up the bed and Uncle Jack returned to the room, standing with his hands on his hips and staring at the floor.
‘Mum told me,’ I said. ‘About the baby.’
Aunty Tess hugged me, but Uncle Jack walked over and pulled her away from me, and said, ‘Tess. Give it a rest. It’s too much. Just give Caroline a chance.’
‘It’s okay,’ I said.
Aunty Tess stood there, blank faced. She swiped at her eyes.
‘A chance, Jack? A chance to do what?’
‘To breathe, for heaven’s sake,’ he said, and then to me, ‘Everything will work out fine.’
‘I know,’ I said.
Aunty Tess threw her arm around my neck. ‘God. Caroline is our warrior, isn’t she?’
I figured she was referring to the scar – I didn’t mind. Her arm was warm, freckled and smelt of sunscreen.
Those were my last Christmas holidays spent with Mum. I moved out soon after the baby, Naomi, was born because it became too difficult for Mum, dealing with a newborn and a teenager. It made sense for me to move in with Uncle Jack and Aunty Tess, especially with Uncle Jack taking me to swimming squad and school. That’s what Mum said, anyway.
I did better in the HSC than anyone expected, except perhaps Uncle Jack. He was convinced I would do well.
AUNTY TESS TOLD me in the same breath that the scar would fade and that it made my face more interesting. She said when I was older we could get a plastic surgeon to conceal it. Once, when she was a bit drunk, she said that men would love the scar and want to trace it.
She was right, not about the plastic surgeon – he thought there was little that could be done about the scar – but it did fade, eventually resembling spilt candle wax. And men do love the scar, reaching towards it, usually after sex, reverently and gently, as if it might still hurt, and my chest expands until I cannot breathe. They know more about me in that moment than they will ever know.
The scar makes me fierce and, somehow, my other facial features developed to suit it: a straight nose; high, hard cheekbones; and a mouth that can thin to nothing. I look at Naomi – seventeen years younger than me and seventeen years old herself now – living with Uncle Jack and Aunty Tess, without any scars, and it is only right that I came first and she followed after.
MUM VISITS UNCLE Jack and Aunty Tess’s house for Christmas lunch this year. That’s when I see her now. Her skirt fits neatly around her slim waist and her legs look good, but her face gives her away.
We are going to the holiday house on Boxing Day. Mum won’t come; she never does. It’s not the old house anymore – they have something much nicer – but I remember that place, the shack.
Naomi says hello to Mum, giving her a brief hug as if they are acquaintances, and Mum clings to Naomi for a second longer. It is almost imperceptible.
Later, Mum catches me alone in the kitchen.
‘Where are you working now?’ she says.
‘Same as last year. The Commonwealth Bank.’
‘Are you a teller?’
‘No. An investment banker.’
Mum shakes her head. ‘I don’t know what you do, Caroline.’
Her disinterest pierces me anew. I am your child, I want to say. Your child. Instead, I say, ‘I wonder how that other person in the accident is now.’
She gives me a long look.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘The woman you crashed into. I think about her sometimes.’
Mum opens her mouth as if to scream, but closes it again and walks away.