Sport 42: 2014
Fiona Mitford — A Place of Our Own
A Place of Our Own
We’ve been staying with Grandma and Grandad since Christmas time; me, Mum, Dad and our baby. We all sleep in the spare room at the end of the hall. There’s plenty of room, that’s what Grandma says. We’re all tucked in here, underneath the Harbour Bridge, we’re underneath its armpit, Grandma says. We’re just here for a wee while though, Grandma knows that. It can’t be forever. It’s just until Mum gets back on her feet.
Our baby’s like a sack of spuds after a good feed. Look at him there, plonked over Mum’s shoulder. He makes a mewing sound and pulls his legs up close to his bottom. He needs to get the wind up, Mum says, and he’ll stay right there until he does. Give him to me, Grandma says. Give him to Grandma. She leans towards Mum and her arms are already in the shape to hold him.
Grandad lets me hand out the drinks; a sherry for Grandma, a beer for Mum and Dad, a little whisky for himself. There is a special drink for me. Grandad’s cordial is a bit watery but he puts a slice of orange in, without the pips, and a little blue striped paper umbrella for twirling. I like that.
Dad won’t sit down. He leans up against Grandad’s bookcase with the glass doors that keep Grandad’s very old books safe from harm. I put his glass on one of the coasters with the picture of the ship they went on to the other side of the world.
I’ve got some news, Dad says. An opportunity has come up. He stops and I’m glad because he doesn’t sound right when he uses big words like that.
Mum says, spit it out then, and Dad gives her a smile without showing his teeth, which isn’t really a smile at all. He picks up his glass and takes a few steps to stand in front of the big windows. He makes a nice picture with the rose bushes behind him and the copper beech trees behind the tennis court. They’re just starting to colour up, page 123 that’s what Granddad says.
Dad gives the top of his head where the skin shows through a little scrub with his fingers. He’s been chasing a job, he says. At the Freezing Works. Foreman.
I see, Granddad says.
Too far to travel from here of course, Dad says. Is it? Grandma says.
We’ll be wanting a place of our own, Dad says. He has found it; a cottage on the outskirts of West Auckland.
West Auckland? Grandma says to Grandad. Needs a bit of work, Dad says.
Does it? Grandad says. You realise that Norelle won’t be up for any sort of . . .
He doesn’t finish what Mum won’t be up for, because Grandma talks over the top of his words.
But it’s perfect for you all here, she says.
She is always right, my Grandma, and Grandad slaps his thighs when she says that, which is Grandad talk for of course it is.
Norelle? Grandad says. What do you think?
It doesn’t matter. We won’t be staying here much longer. There won’t be any more said about it. I know it when Dad moves away from the window and puts one open hand on Mum’s shoulder. Grandma and Grandad can’t know of course, but this is how he passes answers to Mum. All the thoughts in his head now travel through his hand and into mum’s heart so that she will think the same.
Mum shrugs her shoulders. Her eyes follow a fat blowfly that crawls up the leg of Grandad’s trousers. At the end of the hall the clock chimes six times.
Where’s that wind gone now? Mum asks our baby. Her hand makes very slow circles on his back.
Did you hear that? There it is again. Outside, on the veranda. It’s nothing to be scared of. It’s only the sound of Grandad’s Black Damson plums dropping from the branches of the tree. They land on the veranda right outside this window above my bed.
The baby’s cot is on one side of Mum and Dad’s bed and I’m in a rollaway on the other side, underneath the bay window with the page 124 sunshine yellow curtains and the purpley-blue flowers that are painted in bunches on the curtains. Lupins, that’s what they are called.
I’d like a garden of my own some day. Dad says we’ll grow spuds, carrots and runner beans when we have a place of our own. I told him I’d like to grow orange marigolds and blood-red geraniums like the ones in the grey concrete pots on Grandma’s front steps. He didn’t like it when I said that. I don’t know why.
It is late, very late in our bedroom. I have been in and out of dreams, I don’t know for how long but I am awake now. Dad whispers to Mum. He sleeps on the side nearest to me. It’s a shouting kind whisper. It’s like how your voice would come out if someone’s hands were around your neck.
I don’t want her talking like that, you know? Like what.
Like your mother. Like she’s up herself. Oh, for Christ’s sake. Go to sleep.
I wonder who she is; somebody like Grandma. On the veranda a possum has found Grandad’s plum tree. Grandad has set a trap, under the hedge. He’s baited the trap with a chunk of apple. I will tell him in the morning to put a plum on the hook in the trap.
Mum switches off the lamp. The baby makes a scratchy little noise in his sleep. Dad lifts his pillow, turns it over and punches it.
Blood-red geraniums, he says. Kids don’t talk like that.
Later, I hear him again.
Norelle, he says. Norelle.
The eiderdown slides with the sheets across the mattress. I can’t, Mum says.
Jesus, he says and he pushes back the bed covers like he’s tangled there, like he’s in a hurry to get away from something, a spider maybe.
He is out on the veranda now. He’s having a smoke. I hope sleep comes for me soon, before he comes back to Mum. The moon is like a big silver coin tonight. It lights up a corner of the bedroom. There are twenty-seven bunches of lupins on Grandma’s curtains.
My job is to look out for the signal box by the railway line and the signpost for our road. Tanekaha, Dad has written on the scrap of paper I have in my lap.
We leave the main road at the signal box and wind down the track across the road into the bush. It is dark. We are in a gully, Mum says, and that word, gully, the sound of it coming from her, makes me want to jump out of the truck and run back up the track into the sunlight.
It is a Saturday in May, the second week of the school holidays. Jack Frost has been and gone, Dad says. The grass twinkles at us. We’re in the wop-wops, Mum says. The trees are not like Grandma’s here. We are in the bush and the trees here are white and icy.
Christmas trees, Dad!
I wind down the window in the truck and reach my hand out to touch with the tips of my fingers.
Ponga ferns, Dad says.
The cottage is green. The fence is green. The grass is white. The sky is grey. Before we left this morning, Grandma gave me a present. I have it on my knee. It’s a wooden box, with a gold latch, it’s not real gold of course, and inside there are thirty-six little silver tubes of paints and three paint brushes.
In my thank you letter, I will tell Grandma that the cottage is a dark forest green, and the fence; I think that is probably a sagey kind of a green, and the steps up to the front door; charcoal? No, they are gun-metal grey.
It’s nice and green, I say. Mum?
Jesus, Mum says, but it is not a shouted, Jesus. We wait in the truck, watch Dad wiggle the door handle through a hole in the mesh on the wire screen door. The handle comes off in his hand and he throws it a very long way down the front section, but Mum doesn’t seem to notice that. She watches something in the grass, something I can’t see. I ask her again. Don’t you like it here? Mum?
She strikes a match and sucks hard on her smoke. She doesn’t look at the house, just stares into the long grass and the dandelions as though there is something there that she can’t look away from.
I think, she says, and a little spiral of grey smoke comes out through her lips, I think that living here in this greenness will be like living deep inside a cabbage.page 126
The baby grizzles in the back seat behind us.
Oh for God’s sake, Mum says. Where’s his dummy?
Her hands shake when she leans forward in her seat to move tea towels and lift the corners of our blankets that are piled at her feet. It’s not here, she says. It’s not here, Oh Christ, don’t tell me . . .
But it is here; safety-pinned to the blanket in the carrycot. I un-pin it and wave it at her and she smiles at me. The baby’s eyes are closed tight. His mouth moves back and forth with wanting it.
Be good, I say in the special singsong voice I use just for him. Be good, baby. I hold the rubber teat against his lips. His mouth is a little pink rosebud. It opens now and closes around the dummy.
Our cottage is alive with fleas. We sleep sitting up in the truck while the flea bomb that the Indian man at the dairy sold us does its work. At daylight Dad and I, holding our noses, open all the windows. It doesn’t look so bad, he calls to Mum. She waits in the truck with the baby on her knee. And he’s right. Sunlight, like fat fingers, comes into the kitchen when he tilts open the blinds.
There are two bedrooms; Mum and Dad’s, with room for the baby’s bassinette, and one across the hallway with two wooden bunks. This will be my room. I will sleep in the bottom bunk until I am more familiar with things, Mum says. A small sitting room is off the kitchen. It’s not like Grandma’s sitting room. A fireplace has been boarded up. The lino on the floor is also green, but a milky green, with white streaks through it as though someone has dragged something very heavy across the floor. I can’t see us ever wanting to sit there for long.
A toilet, hissing and bubbling at nobody, and a bath are beside the washhouse. The house is so small that I can stand at the door of the washhouse and see the pillows on the mattress in my parents’ room.
Saturday is wash day and Mum cries. She is terrified of the washing machine. Dad has bought an electric wringer and clamped it on to the concrete tub above the machine. Mum wipes her cheeks with the back of her hand and tells us about a friend of Grandma’s caught by her hair in a wringer just like this one.
Scalped alive, she says, running her fingers through her long hair. Dad will operate the machine. He will be the washer-woman, he page 127 says, and I laugh as he puts his crew-cut head near the turning rollers of the wringer. A long wooden pole with a nail on the end of it has been left in the washhouse. Dad hooks out the sheets and towels from the steamy water and pokes them at the rollers of the wringer.
See? He says. Easy.
It suits you, Mum says, and to me, get outside in the sunshine.
I sit on the front steps, pick off the stalks of a few long, sticky weeds poked up between the cracks in the steps and make roads for ants zigzagging near my toes. Mum won’t plant any flowers here. We won’t be here to see them bloom, she has said. We’ll be somewhere much nicer by then.
The stray cat watches me from the roof of the shed. The cat is our secret, mine and Mum’s. We’ve named her Katie. There’s the end of her silver tail now, just disappearing around the side of the drainpipe. We’ve hidden a couple of old saucers under the eaves of the house to feed her scraps. Dad can’t find out. He says cats are mangy, dirty, mongrel things and if he sees her flea-ridden carcass around here again that’ll be it. He’s got a slug gun under the bed with a bullet in it and it’s got her name on it.
He’s caught her once. She was asleep in the baby’s bassinette. He picked her up by the scruff of her neck and he ran with her, flat out, down the path behind the shed. I’d never seen him run. Not like that. I got Mum. She saved Katie’s life. She caught up to him, punched him on the arm that held Katie, so he dropped her.
I can’t take much more of this kind of living, Mum said.
Down the back lawn behind the shed, Mum and me, we’re going to make a bird trap. It’s just to catch a little bird to hold in my hand for a few minutes to see what it feels like and then we’ll let it go. Mum’s got an empty beer crate. She lifts one side of it and puts a rock there to keep it open. We’ve left a trail of bread crusts that end up under the box. Mum ties a piece of string to a nail on the top of the crate and feeds it along the grass to stretch to the pile of wood and old tyres. We lie in the grass together for ages while the baby’s asleep. We wait and wait for a little bird, the string in my hand ready to drop the box down when he’s safely inside.
Dad’s voice comes down the path to find us. He’s holds the washing basket with all the baby’s nappies and towels.
Mum gets up onto all fours, leans back on her heels, pushes up off the ground to stand.
You keep watch, she says.
She walks slow back up the path to the clothesline; one hand comes behind her to hold at her back.
Katie slinks along in front of the crate, rubs the sides of her mouth hard along the wood, her gums pull back. Her teeth are pale creamy yellow.
Get out of it, Katie, I say, but not too loud.
Katie flops down on the warm grass right in front of the crate, flips from side to side on her back, the sun on her belly.
On the scrounge for a warm bed aren’t you? I say, making my voice sound like Mum’s, and Katie’s eyes glow like golden moons.
Go. Katie. Pssst. Get out of it, I whisper, and just at that moment a little Yellow Hammer darts in under the box and Katie snakes around quick as a flash, her paw hooks in under the crate. I run towards the box, pick up a rock and throw it hard, hit Katie, too hard, much too hard, and she lets out a yowl and streaks off back up the side path, scoots behind Mum at the clothesline. Mum doesn’t see her. She flicks and snaps our baby’s washed and wrung nappies twice before she pegs them to the line, all nice and straight, and up the three concrete steps Katie slinks, her grey, mangy body low and close in to the ground.
The bird flutters inside the crate. Mum! I shout. Mum! Come and see.
Hang on, she says, and Dad brings out another load from the washhouse, closes the screen door behind him, and somewhere not too far away comes the sound of a train snaking up through the gully. The fluttering from the crate is louder now; the little bird throws itself at the sides of the crate. I lift the crate an inch from the ground and see it in the far corner of the darkness. It’s just a baby.
Mum, I yell. Mum! Come. Quick.
But Mum’s gone. A basket of Dad’s washing has tipped up in the dirt by the clothesline. A nappy swings from it, pegged by one corner. There is a beating in my throat. Katie. Last time, he found her on the page 129 blanket at the end of the baby’s bassinette. Katie didn’t hear him open the door. She lay on her back. Dreaming. Poor Katie.
The train is closer now. I can see the train tracks through a gap in the hedge I’ve made underneath their bedroom window.
That prick of a mongrel, he says. He is louder than the train. Katie’s peed in the wardrobe, inside his slippers. Mum cries, soft, like a voice given up.
Leave it, she says. Jesus, leave it, just leave it, leave it. And her voice catches up with the sound of the train as it crawls up through the valley toward us and I think how nice it must feel to be that train, to get to the top of the rise, to know that the easy bit is ahead; to fly along on the long, flat straight past our cottage with the hard bit long behind you. And here it comes. It screams past me and the sound of it, the speed of the wheels hitting the tracks is louder than him, than Mum, the baby. Everything in the whole wide world. And it seems that it makes it stop his shouting for a time. I wonder if he hears it at all. Hears things the way I do here in the hedge underneath their bedroom window. And be quiet, it tells him now, as it thunders past our cottage. Be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, be quiet, and be quiet.