Mrs. Gillespie and my mother are having a glass of sherry in the sitting room and don’t want to be interrupted. “Come here,” Simon Gillespie whispers, and he takes my hand and leads me through the cool, carpeted passageway toward his mother’s bedroom. We step into the big wardrobe, her long dresses falling about my face and shoulders like the veils of Salome. We mush our lips together for an age. When we’re tired of kissing we sneak outside to the pile of rubble behind the incinerator at the far end of the yard. I can stick my feet in the holes in the wire fence and climb up to see the corrugated iron roof of our house across the neighbor’s yard.
“Get down,” Simon says, and we put little twigs and bits of grass and pebbles down my underpants because mine’s better, we can both see that, and it tickles my “dick.”
We go inside for cordial.
“Look at the little lovebirds,” Mrs. Gillespie says to Mummy.
And to us, “Are you going to get married?"
My mother looks around blankly at the walls.
But secretly we are.
Mrs. Fleming’s kindergarten is underneath her house on Oakley Street, and it’s just for a few hours in the morning and most mornings Mummy asks if I want to go along. I’ll be sitting on the stair by the telephone nook, or in the little rock garden right beside it, and the feeling of no-oh ricochets through my limbs. It’s a bit cooler sitting on those stairs, down among the pebbles, and naturally I want to stay sitting about near my mother. (I know where every other pocket of coolness in the house is: lifting up my singlet and laying my stomach flat on the kitchen floor, or taking off all my clothes and making the dry bathtub a sort of open coffin.)
I want to shout to life as it strolls by with its market day offerings, “Go on ahead without Mummy and me.” I don’t know why. I don’t mind kindergarten so much when I get there. My mother seems to understand this ambivalence, my wish to linger at the fringes rather than plunge directly in, hence her asking as to my preference. But on other days, unbeknownst to me she conspires with Aunty Verna to have her come and pick me up in the car and go along to kindergarten with her little Pete—a boy, who his mother favors. We are often the first ones there, and old Mrs. Fleming catches us at the bottom of the slide and gives us a jelly bean just for having gone down it. Shortly after his mother leaves—she comes in under the house and applauds his every move, then creeps off while his back is turned—Peter begins to cry, unable to accept that we’re stuck here now and there’s nothing to be done. I prod him gently, saying his mother will be back soon and he can play house with me till then. Old Mrs. Fleming picks him up and cuddles him. She wears floral dresses that match the flowery scent of her skin, that make me think I might choke a little bit. But she is very kind to have me on her lap at story time, more than the others since I like to sit there, and she’s very funny too, and asks whenever she hears old Mr. Fleming making a bang upstairs in the kitchen, “What’s he doing up there, kids?”
My first work of art: an abstract painting that feels partly given, my hand barely on it but near the halfway point is boosted by a powerful, conscious effort to cover the sheet of butcher paper almost entirely with pastel squares. I rush to finish, leaving a speck of sky at the top. I am mesmerized: a dreamed-up city without any people that I leave to dry with the other paintings set out like fallen kites on the grass. The work of the others seems dabbling, childish in comparison.
The prettiness of the pink and blue and yellow squares startles me when I go to look at it again.
“Mrs. Fleming!” I shout, running to show her.
“Ehm,” she murmurs before turning to another child. I am made momentarily blind by her utterance, and its coinciding with a sharp movement of the sun into my eyes. I stand for a minute with my painting in hand, swaying atop wobbly legs. I am three feet from the wood palings that form a decorative outer wall underneath the Fleming house, the paint peeling, and six or seven feet from the small yellow beetle that’s parked just beyond the gate that leads out to the footpath. It’s a proper gate that’s shut and entraps us; the yellow beetle is always parked there. The footpath slopes away, as does the ground I’m standing on, a small mound of earth that has shot up and taken a patchy cover of grass in preparation for the precise moment of my artistic reckoning, so that I might stand here on a small, uneven pedestal. Overhead, the clouds move with the same hurried disinterest they’ve always shown. And what of my fellow kindergartners, little Brenda and Marita and Stephanie and Janelle? They dance in and out from under the house, smiling at me, oblivious. I doubt our hearts will ever experience the same things. When I can see again my painting is sullied—it is great, but old Mrs. Fleming has tarnished the act of its creation by brushing it with her lack of discernment or talent, her old woman’s idiocy. I crumple it up and shove it in the bin.
I crave my mother’s bosom, and wait for her to bend down to me on the footpath outside the Fleming house—and in the driveway, kitchen, yard, bed, shop, church, street—to smother myself in her buttery flesh. I want to feel the soft pillow of her hip at my side and hear her say, “What shall we do now, Tessa Lou?” as if the two of us are in cahoots. My middle name is not Lou but Margaret—“Peg,” Mummy says—but she often allows a shimmy into the action of her words so as to broaden our boundaries. She might be a big ole gal from Texas just now. Some days she suggests a glass of sherry at Mrs. Gillespie’s; or a cup of tea at Aunty Verna’s, whose little Pete I like to kick around with; or a trip to the butcher’s with its creamy, cool-smelling interior; or—there’s nothing so gratifying, so rife with hope—sitting upstairs on her big bed and trying on her wedding rings. But I would never tell any of that in case it is ruined. Besides, I don’t know what my longing for my mother’s breast is called—love? I want to crawl inside her big bosom! If ever she catches me staring up at her soft boozy, wanting to climb onto the shelf and nestle like a small bird in the valley, protected on both sides by the mountains of her speckled flesh, she says, “What, pet?”
But I won’t say, and my heart has a small pressing pain when I think I’ll soon be going to school.
“After the holidays, when the others go,” Mummy says, to remind me.
Though I want to want to go to school, to not disappoint her and my brothers and sisters who say, “You’ll be coming to Wandal with us.”
That’s a strange name for a school.
“What does Wandal mean?”
“Nothen. Means Wandal,” Jim says.
Twice Dad asks how old I am, as if he’s trying to remember it.
Late in January after the floods, we go driving in the bush for hours. There is nothing to see but crazed configurations of rocks and wild, dying trees pushing at the edges of the crumbling road: an ongoing vision of pure, day-lit terror.
“How much further, Dad?” we want to know.
“Ohh,” he murmurs, noncommittal.
Every few miles we stop at a Catholic church so that our mother can pop her head in. What’s she praying for in there? If I squat and do it in the grass a snake’ll bite my bum. Dad stops the car out the back of someplace.
“Stop dancing around and just go!” he says like a crazy police person.
“Hoo hoo,” I sing, blocking my nose against the stench of dead dung and sawdust—do I bury it?—and creep further in to the threat of goannas, geckos, frogs, and blue-tongue lizards that lurk under the rim and crawl into the bowl—I look and look and look—and slip in under the walls that don’t quite reach the ground and are hidden behind the back of the crumbling wooden dunny seat and up in the corners of the ceiling—there’s sky for a roof!—waiting to pounce on my head. I clench my buttocks above the surface of the splintery seat, my mind petrified, unleashed. I try not to touch anything, even air.
“Are you out there, Dad?”
“There’s no toilet paper.”
“Good god, love.”
He pushes an old newspaper under the door.
When I get back in the car my brothers lay into me.
At the dairy there’s a machine like a merry-go-round for cows.
“Look at it, childers,” Dad cries, as he waves his hand across the expanse of metal and hide.
I squint at the milk squirted into the tin bucket—warm-colored, which makes me sick to think of it.
At home, the dog goes mad from seeing us. After dinner, Mare lays a towel across my shoulders and trims my hair with the sewing scissors. My mother sits a few feet off in her canvas chair so as not to throw off my sister’s steady aim.
“That’s it, love,” she says, encouraging, “you’ve got an eye for it.”
I feel the stop-and-go tickle of the steel scissors against my back.
“Don’t move!” Mummy yells, when I know to be still as stone. Mare’ll slit me otherwise. She is eleven and wants to be a real hairdresser when she grows up. Or a ballerina.
“A schoolteacher,” Rose says.
I can never think of anything.
“Fry man,” Pat says.
He is four and can’t talk properly yet. Mummy pulls him onto her lap and kisses the top of his head.
“Which one of you boys will be a priest for me?” she says, surveying the older set.
It is every Catholic mother’s hope to have at least one, but the big boys all say “nah.”
They don’t want to wear the red and white altar boy robes, or any part of it.
“Especially Father torkin to us,” Jim says.
My mother is too tired to lift the little fatty off her lap and get up and slap him.
I’m up early and dressed in my blue pinafore and white blouse and I stick my nose into my new Bata school shoes and sniff hard at the new old leather, then put on my socks and shove my feet into them. I want to be like other children who are going to Wandal, not from my family but who I’ve seen in books, with ribbons in their hair and handkerchiefs. I pick through the clothing strewn over every bony surface of the bedroom. Rose lies flat on her stomach, her head turned up sharply for air. I look down at her pink cheek and bird’s nest of hair. Nothing hidden in there. I walk out to the cement path up toward the kitchen, slipping by my father at the kitchen table in his singlet and underpants—is that his—? ohh!—as I flee into the laundry.
“What’re you hunting for, fizzer?” he calls.
I don’t answer but stare at the silos of clothing that grow and grow before my eyes. I wish my mother would get out of bed and come downstairs and find me a hair ribbon. But she’s given up on “a certain kind of life”—meaning the laundry not looking like Armageddon. I plunge my hands into the nearest pile, plucking off items of clothing as if they’re chicken feathers. More of nothing. What have I been dreaming? Apart from the mess, the whole house is a stark white modern, a ribbonless canvas that I swiftly trek through in my mind as if through the pages of my father’s Architecture magazines. I haven’t laid eyes on a pretty hair ribbon but on the heads of my little kindergarten friends, whose hearts are not in sync. I scour the laundry’s bottom shelves searching for a snot rag, any clean clump of cloth, shifting the tins of nugget and sundry stained rags, the fat-bellied sewing basket—is that Luke’s first snatch of knitting?—the jumble sale of shoes. I spy the little pillow for the black shoe polish and stuff it in my blouse pocket.
I see my error at once and try to shift the blackened bulge beneath the shoulder strap of my pinafore.
“Oh, darling,” Mummy says, having roused herself from a humungous slumber and come downstairs to witness my lopsidedness, my distress. “I’ll get you one of Dadda’s handkerchiefs. Mares will plait your hair if you like. Come and have some brekky, hey.”
Oh, beloved Mumma!
At the dark delirium of the classroom door I cling instinctively to the hem of my mother’s dress. “You’ll be all right,” she says, untangling my hand and giving me a soft shove. It falls upon me that I mustn’t speak, only wait for her return. A large nun stands just inside the entrance, holding out her pink squiggle of fingers to be shaken. She has a puffy pink face and wears a long brown habit with a white bandage at her cross forehead and a belt of wooden rosary beads that hangs from her stomach and nearly touches the floor. She looks like a mountain, with exploding bits. She gestures repeatedly toward the lay teacher, who has long brown hair and small brown eyes more like a brown-eyed rabbit’s than my mother’s with the flecks of dead soldiers in them. Her hair is pulled back with a pretty blue scarf that hangs like two ribbons down either side of her neck. The lay teacher tempts me inside with a box of colored rods, and another little girl named Ann Marie—“Goddard, of all the names!” the mountain cries out—who has no front teeth and wispy blond hair that falls around her angel face and is bound to be my friend. Ann Marie Goddard is mute like me.
Our days are filled with curious actions and more curious intentions that begin with the morning parade where one or two boys are hauled up to the veranda to be given the strap in view of the whole school. Often it is one of my brothers, and I learn to turn a blind, disowning eye. Rodney Dowling sometimes reacts by having a grand attack of shaking and groaning. It is not his affection for my brothers, but he is prone to fits and I don’t blame him and I think it must be terrible to fall down on the boiling hot bitumen, a flurry of nuns shouting “Grab his tongue!” as they pry open his mouth and fish for it. Rodney is a big boy on account of his doting mother and his medicines, and he looks like a writhing wildebeest in his gray school shorts and wrinkly knees. Sometimes he gets a light tap with the strap after he comes good, then Sousa blasts over the loudspeaker and the whole platoon goes left, left, left right left, right left right left . . . inside, two by two, I with Bradley Henderson who is a brute and the same height as me, that is the thinking, and I am seated beside him for the rest of the year, doing reading—the words springing up out of everywhere and I don’t remember not knowing them all—and rods, a short red one and a long brown one equals an orange, three light greens make a blue, and we’re allowed to build towers out of them after.
Out again for morning milk and every child is to drink the warm milk given free from the government unless they bring a special note from home, and those are read over cryptically and mostly vetoed. My parents suppose that reason prevails at Wandal, and they are not the kind to write a special note, not even for sickness after the fact—“Come now, love,” my father says, making of it a hullabaloo. (Once I break him down with my tears and insistence that “Sister says, Sister says,” and I clutch a lined scrap of yellow notepaper on which he has written in a fast hand, Tess was sick.—and left it unsigned.)
After I vomit I feel a prickle of cold all over my skin.
Back in we march for more rods and coloring in religion pictures, that is art, picture of Jesus who isn’t quite God, I think god in my head—will God know?—yes!—the mountain says God sees everything I do and knows my thoughts before I have them. I try to think how but I can’t. Jesus is God and the Holy Spirit, the white dove, but I don’t have a white colored pencil. I spy on my classmates who’ve been given the twenty-four-box-set of colored pencils, the care with which they sharpen the points, and don’t share, or abuse the tips, and return them to the boxes nestled in their groins. My Holy Spirit is pale brownish like a piebald pigeon but still God, and Mary too, I color her light blue, mother of Jesus, mother of God, which makes her greater than God but no one is greater than God, the mountain says. She says we all have a soul that is in us and outside of us, invisible and everywhere. There is a name for it then.
A cream bun from tuck shop for little lunch, and not enough time to play—
“What does your father do?”
“What does your father do?”
“He’s an architect. He draws stuff.”
Even the nuns ask. I don’t go to the toilets because there are spiders and probably a frog. The lay teacher tells us a story about finding a frog in her outhouse, and it gives me a green creepy cold feeling, like a frog touching my bottom. Her fiancé came over to get rid of it and we ask her to tell it again, to hear about the fiancé part. We practice printing letters and more reading out loud of Dick and Jane and everyone will get a turn at that but only those who can’t very well. It is excruciating to wait and wait at the bottom of the page.
At the bell I’m up and out, slowing past the boys’ toilet, the coppery shard glowing just inside the door. The boys are not allowed to use the toilet unless it’s for a “number two.” They stand facing the wall over the smelly swill, the warped, stained urinal reflecting back to them what is strange with their kind. I scurry past the brick opening, the boys streaming out like a shaken hive of bees. There is a pile of people at the tuck shop and I’m fed to the front.
“A meat pie and a lemonade ice-block, please”—but on Fridays in Lent my mother brings a parcel of chips and potato scallops to the school gate.
And once forgets.
“We’ll starve,” Mare says, making a pact with the six of us not to tell.
I sense our collective shame at our mother’s having forgotten our existence, that is the nub of it, and easily keep my mouth shut. But later I stumble blindly into the front row of desks.
“All the McLarens” are called over the loudspeaker, and we are led to the convent steps to be fed Jatz crackers and green cordial.
“Who told?” Mare says, but I don’t confess.
The mountain comes to have a look at us.
“Mother didn’t come?” she says.
Our mother picks us up at the usual time as if she hasn’t forgotten us after all. Paddy is coiled beside her on the front seat like a witchety-grub. The big boys are raucous with hunger and they shout, “You forgot our lunch”—“We had to have Jatz”—“You forgot us, Mum!” Her face stalls in the warm car air, into which Mare interjects, “It was embarrassing, like we were from Neerkol.” That is an orphanage just outside of Rockton, where no one wants to live. Our mother says with a tight lip that she can think of “a lot more embarrassing things in this life,” then she softens and asks which of the nuns gave us the Jatz crackers. But we are starving! and in no mood for one of her reminiscent turns, she knows many of the nuns personally on account of two of her mother’s sisters joining the Carmelites and “did you know, pets, they wrote letters to one another in Latin for the rest of their lives?” Most surely! I think she’ll careen into the Latin roots now, dissembling our hunger into hung hungi hanger, you never know where she’ll come out, and I can’t take it, I reach over and bop her on her balding head.
“Don’t hit!” Mummy cries.
My temples throb with forgiveness, and my brothers complain brutishly and none of us notice that we’re driving toward the Fish Bar and then, joy, to the rainbow fountain on George Street, where we sit on the grass to devour our fish and chips like scavenger gulls and don’t care that we can’t make out the pink and blue and yellow sprays against the backdrop of the teeming afternoon sun.
Every day at big lunch a meat pie and an ice block more or less, and Beverly Beatson unfolds a cloth serviette on her lap and holds her tomato sandwich with one hand and cups the other beneath her chin, every day in the same way, with such a delicate, taut manner as makes us all silently mock her, yet she refuses to be mocked.
“My mother taught me,” is all she says.
We explode onto the big oval and the small hill near the cinder pile or run down to the basketball court to play rounders or sneak away to play fairies furiously, stuffing their lives into scarce minutes, and creep back to the shade beneath the big hall and play red rover between the wood posts. At the bell one last guzzle at the water trough before we slink back in for the last bit of being read to with our heads laid down on our sticky wooden desks. We can fall asleep if we want, and we are let out a half hour before the higher grades because they are savages which next year we’ll become.