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Fiction

Firebugs

I HATED JUDY'S first boyfriend, as expected. He was oddly shaped, like a sweet potato. His clothes were exactly wrong. Judy had arranged for us to meet him at Circular Quay one Saturday morning, so that the three of us could go to the movies. He was waiting for us when we got off the ferry. He wore a T-shirt that said I love Brisbane, loose over his narrow shoulders, clinging around his womanly waist. He stepped forward when he saw us and produced from behind his back a bunch of yellow flowers, six or seven of them, wound in cellophane. I got out of the way so no one would think he was giving them to me.

Judy and Alfred held hands as we walked up George Street. He was taller than she was, which was a mercy, and he might even have been heavier. We were early, and had to sit in the dark recesses of the foyer, waiting for the doors to be opened. Alfred told us about his last girlfriend, who had gone to live in America. 'She was stunning,' he said. He had a slightly English accent, and a deep, pompous voice. 'She had legs up to here,' indicating his waist, or somewhere above it. I could not meet Judy's eye, as I knew how ashamed she must be. I could picture Alfred's old girlfriend. She would be the daughter of friends of the family, stupidly tall with lank hair and glasses, someone who had been silly enough to let Alfred kiss her during a game of murder in the dark. And now she was gone to America, too far away to correct Alfred's version of their story.

I will not tell you about being in the cinema with Judy and Alfred and the sound of his mouth sipping at hers. When we came out into the light my father had died, though the city and I did not know that yet. It was autumn and a cold wind blew straight up George Street, hustling a few stray people before it. We walked back down to the Quay and I was energetically mean, telling Alfred stories that Judy would not want him to hear, stories that until then had been private to both of us. When we reached the wharf I got on the ferry before Judy did, and went straight upstairs. I leaned my face against the window and watched the grey water pitching all the way home, so that Judy would think it was I who had the right to be angry, and not she.

My mother picked us up from the ferry, which was unusual. It was clear that she had a secret. Her lips were pinched together against the telling of it. We drove away from Judy's house and then, instead of turning on to the main road, she pulled into the kerb and parked.

'I have something to tell you,' she said. I thought of asking her to keep it to herself, but she would not be stopped.

My father had been at home, in his study, and had come out holding his head, leaning against the door frame. 'I have a headache,' he said to his wife Anne, 'everything hurts.' Then he fell forward, on to the wine-coloured carpet, and had a kind of fit, his arms and legs thrashing. He broke his wrist, smashing it against the wall. Anne called an ambulance and he was taken to hospital unconscious, where he died. All this had happened while I was travelling into the city with Judy, walking up George Street, sitting in the cinema with her and Alfred. My father had been taken to the hospital closest to his house. It was fifteen minutes' walk from where I had been sitting in the dark.

My mother and I looked at each other. I had a moment to claim the role as chief mourner in our household – she was only an ex-wife, and I was still a daughter – but I hesitated too long. She began to cry. I looked out of the window. Two boys from school walked past and I had to turn away so they would not see me.

The first thing I did when we got home was to ring Judy, but her phone was engaged. My mother was at the fridge, pouring herself a glass of white wine from a half-empty bottle. I sat on the high stool next to the phone, watching her. She was drinking before the fridge door had closed. I picked the phone up and dialled Judy's number again. Still engaged.

'Have you told James?' I said to my mother.

She swallowed her second mouthful and said, 'He's on his way over.'

I dialled Judy's number again. I wanted my mother out of the room while I told Judy what had happened. The phone was still engaged. 'Why don't you go out and wait for him,' I said.

My mother stared at me suspiciously and downed the rest of her wine. 'Why don't you?' she said.

'I have a phone call to make.'

'So do I.'

We looked at each other. I tried Judy again. Engaged. I got down off the stool and went outside to wait for my brother.

When I was very small, when James still lived at home, I spent more time out on the street than in the house, or that was the way it seemed. The street was a dead end, where cars rarely came. James would drift back and forth on his bike. Sometimes I would follow him on rollerskates. I don't remember him ever trying to get rid of me, or shouting at me. He had a supernatural patience, as though he came from another family. He was tall and dark like my father, with a big nose and pointed eyebrows. He'd left home the year I turned eight.

I sat at the top of the driveway to wait for him. It was starting to get dark, and there was a spatter of rain between the trees. The street lights came on. I listened for the sound of James's motorbike but all I could hear was the sound of leaves washing against each other. When it was completely dark I stood up on stiff legs and went inside.

'MY DAD DIED,' I said to Judy. She had been waiting for me at the end of the Alexandra Street Wharf, our meeting spot. We were sitting with our legs swinging. The rain had cleared overnight and it was a bright autumn day, warm and forgiving. The water glittered as though someone was typing light on to it.

'Wow,' said Judy.

'He had a brain aneurysm,' I said. 'He could have had it for years.'

'Gee, that's awful.' Judy put her hand on my arm. Neither of us quite knew how to play this scene. I considered crying but did not think I had it in me. I had not yet learned to begin with the tears; I always tried to start with the sobbing, and it never sounded real.

'When is – what about the funeral?' said Judy.

'I'm not going,' I said quickly. 'Anne doesn't want us there.'

If Judy had been any older or any more sophisticated she would have known this for the lie it was, but I was the one in charge of the truth in our friendship. The only thing Judy could do better than I could was to sing and play music, and she was properly modest about these abilities, which were valueless in our currency. Judy relied on me to judge the worth of things. It would take us some time to recover from this when we left school.

Judy gasped as I'd known she would, but she was not really surprised. Anne's vindictive behaviour towards my small family was well-known to her. More than once we had been excluded from birthday parties, and I had never seen my father at Christmas.

I found myself thinking, as Judy obediently cursed Anne, that only men could fully live double lives, as my father had for nearly ten years. Women could not secretly have a second family, for who could hide a pregnancy and birth, and then a baby? I thought that when I grew up I might have two husbands. One would be good and one would be bad and I would shuttle between them and punish them for loving me. I watched a cormorant dive under, and the tell-tale shiver of water behind it. It came up, beak open and empty.

'Alfred told me I was stunning,' said Judy, shading her eyes from the sun.

'How embarrassing,' I said coldly.

IN FACT ANNE behaved very well, inviting us to choose a hymn and asking if James or I would like to read a verse from the Bible. She did not ask my mother to speak, for which I was very grateful.

'How about The Rose,' said my mother. We were sitting at the kitchen table, not eating breakfast. She'd had her black hair cut into a bob, sharp around her face. Her cheeks had that bright spot that told me she'd already had a drink.

'That isn't a hymn.'

'Angel of the Morning?'

I frowned at her.

'How about Bette Davis Eyes?'

One of my mother's favourite things was to watch Countdown with me and berate or imitate the singers. She could shame me out of my love for a band. I had thrown away my Culture Club album after she had appeared from the bedroom, her hair teased up and tied in rags, and wearing every one of her bracelets and necklaces. She'd been in there for nearly an hour. I was learning to keep my passions a secret but it was not always easy. I had almost no one to talk to.

She began to sing Angel of the Morning and I interrupted her, saying, 'Amazing Grace.'

'Bit obvious.' She reached for her cigarettes.

I hadn't decided yet whether I would go to the funeral. No, not true. Of course I would go. It was inevitable. I had no choice; not like James, who seemed to have dematerialised since Saturday. He had not turned up that night, and he was not answering the phone at his flat.

'What will we wear?' I said to my mother.

'Clothes.'

I quivered with hatred.

'Where's my lighter?' When she turned around I snatched two cigarettes out of her pack, and had them in my pocket before she turned back.

'I can't think of any other hymns anyway,' she said. 'Jerusalem.' She lit her cigarette. I got down from the table before she could start to sing it.

I COULD REMEMBER nothing of my parents' marriage; nothing of the nights of drinking, the sudden attempts at leaving – both of them fighting for the car keys, determined to be the one who went. Girls at school, fools who had tried to become my friend, sometimes commiserated with me about having no father, but I never felt it. I could not remember living with him. My first memory of him is being left outside his chambers with James, sitting in the plush chairs he kept for his clients. The door to his office opens and he puts his lantern face round, and he says, 'Not long.' James passes me my book of the Wombles. We are calm and happy enough, for a visit to my father's house means quiet, and the superior toys of our half-siblings, which James was never too old to enjoy.

Now the kids at school, usually wary of me, afraid to be infected by my virulent unpopularity, were commiserating again. When it came time to hand in my maths homework I had nothing and Mrs Lennon looked surprised.

'This isn't like you,' she said, pausing by my desk.

'My father died,' I said loudly.

Raffaello turned around and gave me a startled, sad look. A few minutes later Katie Goldsworthy passed me a note that said, We hope your OK.

Judy made a great show of protecting me at lunch time, when other girls came round to share in the drama. 'She's too upset to talk,' she said, when they bent over to look into my face. I had mastered the tears this time. I let them roll down my cheeks and then wiped them away with a corner of my school blouse. 'Thank you,' said Judy, to a girl who proffered her packet of cheese CCs. 'I don't think she's hungry though.' I heard her telling them that I wasn't even invited to the funeral because my father's wife was such a bitch.

I was calculating how much time I might get out of this, how long the hostilities might be suspended for. The girls walked away in a group, their heads together, and Judy and I shared the CCs.

JAMES AND I were sitting outside on the street. I suppose I was three or four years old, so James would have been about thirteen. We were sitting on the side of the road and I was on James's lap, and he had started a little fire in the gutter, using twigs from the jacaranda tree over our heads. It was burning quite well. My mother's lighter lay discarded on the grass. James gave me things to feed into the fire; a twig, a gum leaf. We tried a jacaranda flower, it sizzled and fluffed out sweet smoke. James hitched me up on his lap and passed me another twig. The little fire snapped and popped.

This was what I remembered as my mother and I walked up the long driveway to the church. I smelled smoke – someone burning leaves – and I remembered this. I realised I had not asked my mother whether my father was being buried or cremated. It was quite possible that she did not know.

Anne and her two children, Georgie and Oliver, were sitting in the pew at the front. There was organ music, exhausted and sad. The other pews were filling up. There were a lot of families; men in suits, who had probably had morning meetings and were already checking their watches, finely dressed wives in pinks and yellows, sullen, bored children in churchy best. My mother seized my hand and pulled me towards the front. My half-sister and brother turned their heads just as we reached them.

There had been a viewing but not even my mother had been able to force me to go to that. My father could be seen between certain hours at the funeral parlour in Darlinghurst, which was where James lived. There was no way James could know this because no one could reach him to tell, but he might ride past it on his bike, or even walk past it. He might be metres from our father's body without knowing it.

Georgie, smelling of perfume, edged away from me along the pew. She had put on a great deal of make-up. It came to just in front of her ears. I leaned back to see Oliver just as he leaned back to see me; our eyes met. The music changed, and we faced the front, sitting up straighter as the minister and the boys' choir filed in. The choir took their places behind the minister, one row at a time. My mother grabbed my hand and squeezed it so the bones crackled. The choir began to sing; Amazing Grace, my song. The boys with the deepest voices were at the back. The tallest of them, in the middle, with his hands together, his eyes closed, his face sorrowful and his white frock moving with the music, was Alfred.

ANNE HAD ORGANISED the wake at the local yacht club, a place of gleaming surfaces and a broad and shimmering view of the harbour. My mother took the first drink that was offered to her and headed for a group of people who watched her coming, wincing slightly, bracing themselves for impact.

A dream came, or a vision, in which I opened my mouth and fire came out in a blast that levelled this place, scorched it clean. Afternoon sun was streaming in. I walked towards it and out on to the wide verandah. In the corner, sitting on a ledge, was my half-brother.

I went over and sat down next to him. He had his head down and he was staring at his shoes. With one hand he picked at the knot of his shoelace.

'Where's James?' He didn't raise his head. His dark hair was just like our father's, just like James's.

'He didn't come,' I said.

Oliver made a sound in his throat. It was clear that he was waiting, as I was, for James to appear on his motorbike, his leather jacket on, his helmet under one arm.

'Do you miss Dad,' I said stupidly.

'Duh,' he said.

'I'll get us some alcohol.'

He lifted his head and stared at me. 'You won't be able to. Mum'll see you.'

'Bet you I can.'

ANOTHER MEMORY, ANOTHER fire. I am in the driveway of my father's house, which is made of sandstone and looks like a small castle. The driveway is big enough to have its own turning circle, a kind of roundabout constructed of small palm trees and shrubs. James has built another fire by raking up the leaves and branches that were littering the driveway. It was a job my father gave him. We are squatting beside our fire, with Georgie and Oliver hovering, scared, behind us. We have taken some of the rocks from the roundabout to make a circle around it, and James has brought pinecones from the tree at the back, which crack and pop when we drop them in. We catch a beetle and drop that in too. It writhes frantically and then goes still in the heart of the flames.

Anne looks out of the kitchen window and James picks up one of the dead palm fronds, alight, and walks towards her. She pulls the window shut just as he lunges with it. Bits of burning palm hit the glass, splintering off and spattering fire into the garden.

James catches my hand and we run around the side of the house, away from our sister and brother, down past the swimming pool and into the bush that runs down to the harbour. We sit in a cave, panting, the cave that the neighbourhood boys use to stash their naked woman magazines. This is the place where we brought my father's Playboys when we found them under the mattress of the bed he shared with Anne. That was the day we were alone in the house, uninvited from our grandmother's birthday because of our behaviour, which Anne said was rude and devious. On that day, too, we lit a fire, and we burned one thing from every room in the house. A pair of Anne's peach-coloured underpants, which I knew to be silk and very expensive. Our younger brother's Etch-a-Sketch, which I had coveted for years. Our sister's ABBA poster. A goldfish. A roll of toilet paper. A cheque book.

ALFRED STOOD BETWEEN me and a waiter with a tray of drinks. 'I thought you weren't invited. That was what Judy said.' He was wearing normal clothes now, the same arrangement my younger brother was dressed in, the same almost every male was wearing – light-coloured chinos, a dark blue blazer, a striped shirt. He had the portly, high-trousered look of an older man.

'She didn't tell me you would be here,' I said, counter-attacking.

'We do all the funerals. And the weddings.'

'What kind of singer are you?' I said.

'A basso profondo. It's very unusual for someone my age.'

'How old are you?'

'Eighteen.'

Out came my mother from behind the tall curtain that hid the bathrooms, clutching a glass of white wine, which she must have taken in with her. Sometimes in our house there was a half-drunk glass, balanced on the cistern.

'Who's this?' she said, seeing Alfred.

'He's in the choir.'

'I'm Judy's boyfriend,' said Alfred with dignity.

'That makes sense,' said my mother, looking him up and down.

Alfred looked discomfited.

'We're getting a drink,' I said, and grabbed Alfred's hand. It was not sweaty, as I had expected; it was warm, and quite soft. When I pushed him in front of me I could smell him. Apple shampoo.

We got to the bar. 'Three scotches and coke. Three double scotches,' I hissed at Alfred, and turned my back as the barman approached.

'I don't drink,' said Alfred frantically.

'Scotch is good,' I said over my shoulder. 'For the voice.' I remembered Judy's mother saying this. She drank a tot before every performance.

Alfred made his order. I used my body to shield him from my mother as we went back out to the verandah. I carried two of the drinks. There was Oliver, waiting for us.

'Coke?' he said, disappointed, as we approached. I handed him a glass. He sipped from it and grinned at me.

We sent Alfred back for more drinks. The afternoon took on a rounded quality, embracing us. I could not perceive things in the distance. After a while Oliver cried and Alfred and I sat on either side of him and comforted him. 'It's not so bad. I don't even have a father,' I said to him, forgetting for a second where we were, who he was.

'I have a father,' said Alfred.

'What's he like?' I said, lifting my head to focus on Alfred's face. I kept one hand on Oliver's knee. He leaned closer into me and I let him. I pulled him so close his head was on my chest, and he sobbed into it. This was what James would do for me, if he were here. I stroked Oliver's hair and said again to Alfred, 'What's your father like?'

'He's a bastard,' said Alfred. 'He thinks I'm… He says I'm a poof.'

'But you're not.'

'No.'

'You love Judy.'

'Well,' said Alfred. There was a high polish to the sky, boats on fire, a spill of light on the water. Oliver slid down into my lap.

'She's all right,' said Alfred.

'She's my best friend,' I said.

'She's fat,' said Alfred.

I was pleased, and outraged, mostly because I had been tricked into taking this seriously, tricked into being cruel to Judy because she was leaving me. She wasn't leaving me. As soon as Alfred could find someone better he would be gone. Some other idiot girl with long hair would be impressed by his manly ways, his deep, commanding voice. Some skinnier girl. I put my face into Oliver's neck, and took a deep breath of him.

'I'm going to spew,' he whispered, and I sprang up, and he managed to get himself to the railing, from where he vomited copiously.

JAMES CAME TO find me at the bottom of our street where it gave into an empty reserve of long grass. I heard his motorbike but didn't look up. I had managed to get my mother's lighter open by stamping on it until it broke, and I was scattering a little trail of lighter fluid from a pile of gum leaves I had made. There was a slight breeze, which might be enough to get things moving.

'Firebug,' said James. That was what our father had shouted at us the day we made the fire in the driveway. Bloody firebugs. That was why he banned James from his house, and that was why my own visits had become so sporadic, designed to inconvenience and irritate. He would never know how he had offended us that day, shouting that word at us. It had made us think he did not love us, even though we loved him because he was so handsome and strong, and because he had chosen others instead of us.

James got down from his bike and came over to me. We stood over my little pile of leaves. He felt in his pocket for matches, and handed them to me, then gave me a cigarette. I lit it, dragged on it, and then knelt down, and applied the burning end to a browned gum leaf. The leaves around it caught, and then the fire found the lighter fluid. It raced in a bright crackling stream across the grass and then it stopped. It smouldered briefly, reaching for twigs and leaves nearby, and then went out. I dropped my cigarette on the ground and stamped it out too.

James put his arm around me and I turned my face into his chest. He smelt of leather and smoke. I could hear our mother reversing out of our driveway. She must have run out of wine.


From Griffith Review Edition 40: WOMEN & POWER © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review