By Sarah Young
/ Fiction /
Bushes burst into flower, roses overflow, magnolias spill onto the broken footpaths from unkempt gardens alongside the river winding its way through the city. Trees are heavy with the weight of leaves unpruned. Weeds emerge between rough checkers of pavement and gravel, warped utility pipes erupt like snakes to create mountain ridges beneath feet. Mansions sink into the ground, split earth reveals a shelf of raw soil. The wind tears holes in the roofs of abandoned houses, tarpaulins flap, chimneys remain frozen mid-fall.
There. Still there. This woman stands at her bathroom window and watches an older woman in the backyard next door. A little brown-skinned sparrow in black leggings, faded barbed-wire tattoos spidering across her thin arms, skin creased like old, supple leather, a mess of grey-gilded dreads sticking to her yellow singlet. She shakes a rug with surprising strength, a rolled cigarette hanging out one side of her thin-lipped mouth, tiny face squinting, falling in on itself in delicate folds.
Banging and snapping the rug, out in front of her, again and again.
This woman watches, unable to turn away as the puffs of dust explode, forced from the very pores of the rug. Bang, oof. Bang, oof. Frown. Pause, intake of the cigarette, lift from the lips, paper stuck. Bang, oof. Some more. Until most of the rug is floating in pieces in the air around the older woman, little dust clouds no longer contained within the shell.
This woman imagines the fabric getting looser and looser, thin fibres pulling and separating, until the holes, at first not visible, grow bigger, full of air, and the rug threatens to fall apart. Rug unraveling, dust in the air, air in the rug, and still the woman, beating on.
This woman straightens her hair and puts on some red lipstick.
‘You look like a creature from the Planet of the Apes,’ her husband tells her as she makes their anniversary dinner. He swigs on his bottle of beer, leaning against the counter, watching her above the brown glass rim.
‘A harlot ape.’ He laughs. ‘What? Can’t take a joke?’
Her youngest son laughs uncertainly from the table. He is learning how to mimic, how to mirror emotion in others, this is what Mrs Allen is teaching him. Watch them, do what they do, be an echo, she says. This is called social … social something. He goes back to his drawing, a pineapple with googly eyes, holding a grenade.
This woman cleans and cleans and cleans. Even at 2.30 in the morning, you will find her cleaning – a single lit room in a dark house – as the rest of its inhabitants sleep. She smokes a final cigarette in the darkness, and waits for them to wake.
This woman’s shaking hands spill wine over the table. Her husband laughs.
‘What’s wrong with you, you crazy woman.’
Later, he tells her she should check herself into a mental institution. He smiles, reminding her of a red-eyed goat.
‘You probably won’t like the food though.’
Their three sons hide behind closed doors and turn their music up over the rising voices, peering out only occasionally to check.
This woman’s older daughter arrives to take her youngest brother to the movies. He is hovering in the kitchen on his tiptoes.
‘Go and find your shoes,’ his sister tells him.
This woman stands at the bench, fingers shaking as she transfers dry and blackened tobacco from half-smoked stubs into an open paper.
‘Where is he?’
This woman shrugs.
‘He left last night. Hasn’t come home yet.’
‘We had a fight.’ This woman looks sheepish as she rolls the paper between her fingers. ‘I threw my sardines on toast at him.’
‘I know.’ She licks the paper, a slight smile creeping across her face. ‘Toast was burnt anyway.’
They laugh, and then her daughter frowns.
‘That. On your arm.’
Bruise fingers. Fingers of bruises. This woman pulls her sleeve down.
Her daughter sighs and goes in search of her brother who she finds on his knees; head and shoulders under the bed, butt in the air.
‘What are you doing? Did you find them?’
He wriggles out, grinning.
‘No. But I found Herbert. Hello!’ He waves the dust-covered sheep in triumph and waits for her to smile.
This woman is standing at the oven when he comes home that night, a glass of red wine beside her, a rolled cigarette smoldering and creating a thin stick of ash on a teacup saucer. He stands at the door, waiting. Bacon is spitting and smoking out the kitchen.
This woman turns. He looks at the floor, avoiding her shaking head, her eyes.
‘Can I come in?’
She shrugs. He waits and then she nods at their sons sitting on the couch, watching Terminator. Robots and guns clash through the room. He sits beside his youngest son, who looks up at him tentatively. He smiles and his son gives a shy smile back.
The other two refuse to look at him. He sits and waits.
This woman pulls him harder into her, fingers digging into his skin, wanting him further in, wanting him to pierce something, to wound. They attack each other, slow and angry, a reconciliation and a war.
Afterwards, she goes to the bathroom and looks in the mirror. There is a woman in there, with grey hairs seeping up her temple, spider veins on her legs. Pores like mini craters along the side of a swollen nose. Lined eyes. A permanently red, sun-scarred chest that is starting to wrinkle too, thicker silvery lines on her stomach, as if fingers long ago dragged through skin.
She feels as though she has been emptied. A pillowcase, washed roughly, which they forgot to put the pillow back into. She wants more. She wants it again. He told her once that her constant need to fuck scared him. But it wasn’t enough. She still couldn’t get enough of a sense of her body, or of his, even as his sweat dripped on her, as his hard arms held her down, and she fought to get closer.
This woman’s husband is barking at a dog on the street. Two policemen turn up, call for more reinforcements, and then take him away. Their children are laughing.
The smell of sewage, mixed with bitumen fumes, lingers in the air. People are warned not to swim at certain beaches, but they do anyway. The surfers refuse to give up their favourite spots. The grass turns yellow, the sky is always blue, the river shrinks. Duck and geese proliferate, growing in size, floating silently in dark-faced packs upon the brown water. Their shit litters what is left of the pavements. Children pick fejoas and apricots from the ground under heavy trees forgotten in wild front yards, and parents are afraid to leave them alone, in case they disappear into the air, or grow roots and become covered in grass, and never come back.
This woman walks into her middle son’s room. His suitcase is open on the bed, a few t-shirts folded neatly inside. He is concentrating on two socks held in front of him.
‘Come on, love. We need to go.’
‘How do I roll these together?’
She takes the socks from her fourteen-year-old son. Has she really never taught him this?
Her youngest peers in the door.
‘How is our stuff…?’
‘The trucks will get it in the morning.’
‘How will Dad know where we are?’
‘He … won’t. And you’re not to text him. Okay? Just for a bit.’
Her son looks at the floor as if he is replaying her words in his mind.
‘Okay,’ he says finally. She wants to hug him, this little nine-year-old ghost, loping around nervously in a teenage body.
They rent a house by the river. Most of the other houses are empty, and it takes this woman a long time to get used to the silence, to the darkness. Not many of the streetlights work anymore, and this whole side of the city seems to sink into a black hole when night comes.
This woman goes to the doctor with creaking bones. They stand side by side and look at the x-rays. A myriad of fine lines decorate her bones like delicate fissures on an eggshell.
‘There are a lot of old fractures here.’
She could probably itemise it if she really tried. Arm: a fry pan. Shin: a small metal fold-up ladder. Head: a squash racquet. Cracked tooth: Just a fist. Or maybe the arm was the racquet. The head the fry pan. Or the arm the ladder?
He looks at her shaking hands. ‘You know, this business has taken its toll on people in different ways …’
She wants to laugh. She wants to say: Yes doctor, I know, but these cracks were there long before any earthquake. But she just nods politely, takes his form, and agrees to make another appointment at the front-desk.
This woman turns fifty. She puts on the red lipstick her daughter bought her, and gets drunk in a pizza restaurant. Her brother-in-law races her to the end of each glass.
Her daughter watches her dancing with her sister and brother-in-law in the middle of the restaurant, oblivious to the stares of other diners. Her dark curly hair, green eyes, skin lightly browned from days of gardening. You know you’re beautiful, don’t you, she thinks. You don’t look like other mothers. You look like you should never have been a mother at all.
This woman refuses to go home. They wander the streets, trying to find a bar still open, and end up at her nephew’s flat. This woman wants to dance to ABBA in the kitchen. His flatmates, who have never seen someone her age quite like this before, someone that can drink as much as they can, spend their night You-Tubing her requests. She closes her eyes, smiles and whirls amongst the dirty dishes and empty beer cans, coat and scarf flying. Her daughter asks her cousin if he will make sure this woman gets home. He nods.
‘She’s fine. She’s having fun. Go.’
He texts at four am.
U got ur mum’s bag n jacket?
No. Shit. Bar?
She lies awake for ten minutes wondering where.
Found them in the slow-cooker. LOL.
This woman stands in the doorway and listens to the man inspecting the walls inside her living room.
‘People are trying to rip off the government all over the place,’ he says. ‘That wasn’t there before the earthquake, they say. Nor that. No. Spending all their claims on ugly paint jobs, superficial stuff. But most of the damage is invisible. The stuff you can’t see – that’s the worst. Another big enough earthquake, and the whole thing will fall.’ He nods his greying head. ‘Yep. Flatten you, just like a pancake.’
This woman sits in front of a short-haired woman with a crease-less dress, a wedding ring and a name-badge that says Sue Barnes. How may I help you?
‘So the youngest has Asperger’s?’
‘Yes. I think the oldest might …’
Sue Barnes isn’t listening. She is looking up something on her computer.
‘I don’t think Asperger’s is actually in here anymore. I’m pretty sure it’s been reclassified. Let me check.’
She continues searching.
‘No, I was right. It’s not. I’m afraid you won’t be eligible for that payment anymore, Mrs …’
‘Right. You’ll have to get him re-diagnosed and come back.’
‘Re-diagnosed with what? My phone bill is overdue. I’ve got to pay the rent on Thursday. Do you realise how much the doctor costs?’
This woman wants to tell Sue Barnes she was an A-student at university, when she went, she just couldn’t seem to line up enough papers to form a degree, and admittedly, her choices hadn’t been the wisest but –
‘You could try the City Mission for food.’
‘I’ve already tried that. There’s a waiting list.’
Sue Barnes’s face is blank.
‘I’m sorry but my next appointment is waiting.’
This woman lets her children skip school. They all lie alone in their beds, headphones on, staring at moving computer screens. A languor falls upon the house, a seeping sadness, and she is unsure what to do with it. There does not seem to be a cleaning product for the job, no matter how frantically, nor for how long, she searches on her knees in the cupboard for it.
Leaves fall, space opens up along the river. Windows break, rain blows in, carpets mould. Upturned couches lie in the middle of the road, glass from a telephone box smashed three months ago still scatters the pavement. Rusty mailboxes, filled with grey mush, welcome ghosts home to an empty plot of overgrown grass. Hand-painted signs are put up on the old cinema and in front of a gun-shop surrounded by now rampant wildflowers in an inner-city wasteland. ‘Buy me, don’t bowl me.’ ‘A coffee cup covered in a year’s worth of grime sits on a table behind the cordons, exactly as it was left.
This woman sips her coffee and watches her children running around the garden finding foil-wrapped eggs. She imagines her father behind her, a man who fixed leaking pipes and taught her the slow movements across the chessboard, who laughed when she sat on the school roof at age twelve and went on strike against the nuns.
Have you spoken to your guardian angels lately?
This woman tells her children, their faces and pajamas smeared in cheap chocolate and disappointment, that they will go to the ten am mass. They’ll do a normal family thing, out in the world, together.
‘Get dressed. Now.’
They fall out of the car and stand disheveled on the sidewalk. The church doors are being pulled closed by an invisible hand, the front yard empty.
‘Quick. Run.’ She locks the car, and looks at her middle son. ‘Where are your shoes?’
He frowns. ‘You only told me to put my socks on.’
‘How old are you? Oh well, too late. Come on.’
She leads her sheep in.
They fidget. She closes her eyes, mouthing responses she can vaguely remember from her childhood, trying to feel something. The basket makes its way towards them. She hands her youngest a couple of coins from the bottom of her handbag. When the woman across the aisle offers him the basket, he holds the coins tightly to his chest and turns his face away.
‘I hate God,’ her son announces, and then gets up and runs out.
She looks at the other two. They frown and try to look small, try to ignore her.
‘We have to go.’
‘It’s not finished,’ the eldest whispers.
‘I don’t care.’
People are looking at them now. Her boys roll their eyes in unison, and then follow her outside. The clouds have covered the sun; the wind scatters leaves to the ground. She finally spots a tiny figure running round and round a tree at the other end of the field beside the church.
‘For God’s sake.’
‘You said God!’
‘She said God!’
‘For God’s sake. For sakes god. God dog, dog god!’ Her middle son chants, jumping in a circle around his big brother in his wet socks, grinning.
This woman can’t sleep. She goes outside for a cigarette. A man is walking down the street, swinging a plastic bag full of beer with one hand, swigging from another. He shouts like he is singing a song.
‘This is the red zone, the red zone. Where’s my house? Your house? We’re all fucked. My house is in the red zone. You going to call the police? Ring them. I’m sure they’ll be able to ASSIST me, I’m sure they’ll be able to HELP. This is the red zone … the red zone …’
This woman fights with her oldest son, tells him no he cannot have twenty dollars, as she stirs the mince, stabs it apart, because we don’t have it, she yells, but he won’t shut up, he keeps on at her – that’s what these children do, see, they just won’t. Let. It. Go. Until she throws the frying pan across the room. He looks at her, and then the dent in the wooden floor, the scattered mince and see-through onion.
‘Stop shaking!’ her son finally yells at her. ‘What’s wrong with you?’
He runs from the room, and she detects tears in his eyes, or maybe his throat, chest, somewhere. He’s right. She can’t stop. She thinks her head may just fall off her neck. She looks at her hands, slightly reddened from the heat, and tries to make them still. She can’t. She pours another wine, as her other two children watch her from across the room, reproach and disgust on their faces.
‘What?’ she yells at their silence. ‘What?’
This woman’s youngest son knocks softly on her door. She is a lump under the covers.
‘You smell,’ he tells her, climbing into bed. He has Herbert in one hand, a giraffe in the other.
‘Here,’ he says. ‘You have Gerry.’
She tucks the giraffe under one arm, and holds her small, skinny son in the other.
‘Thank you. Pancakes?’
He nods manically under the covers.
This woman drinks two bottles of wine – ‘and a half,’ her youngest son will remind her the next morning – and lies on her bedroom floor in front of her eldest son and daughter, her dress up around her hips. Her son is trying to teach her to meditate. To chill out, to let the stress go, to enter the sanctuary that is her body.
‘My body is where all the problems came from,’ this woman says.
He looks confused but tries to continue his instruction. Her daughter pulls this woman’s skirt back down over her thighs, which suddenly seem thin, skin draped on bone. Her son tells this woman to be like him, to think with clarity not emotion. This woman shakes her head.
‘No, you have to ride emotion sometimes. Wait until you fall in love. Then you’ll get thrashed like your sister and I. But at least we love. At least we care.’
He sighs, and walks out.
This woman climbs into bed, hiccupping. Her daughter rubs her back in the same circular motion this woman used to rub an egg on her daughter’s cheek when she couldn’t sleep.
‘Remember when …’ her daughter whispers, but her mother has started to snore through her swollen nose. The orange light from a sealing truck blinks through the gaps in the curtains. Whirr, beep, whirr. There is a jolt. This woman wakes, sits up, tense. They wait in silence, but it remains still and she lies back down.
Sometimes her daughter likes the way the earth shakes. It rattles them like an angry mother shaking her child. Are you awake yet? Do you understand? That's what she thinks sometimes, anyway. Wake up, it’s saying. Wake up and watch where you're putting your feet. You can fall into those cracks, you know.
This woman takes her coffee outside and sees an old man in a white shirt and shorts, skin bare against the chill, standing in front of the empty house over the road. She has seen him before. A golden retriever sits beside him as he holds the fence railings and peers through overhanging branches and hip-high wet grass into the dark windows. The house sits on a noticeable slump, a blue tarpaulin hanging down one side, a faded red-zone notice taped to a window.
The dog pulls on the leash, but the man just pats its head, not taking his eyes from the house. He is still there when this woman finishes her coffee and goes inside.
This woman leans against the wall in the waiting room. The seats are full; people sit on the floor and in the corridor. Condensation hides the plot of rubble where she parked, the courthouse the only thing left standing on this block.
A man with plaited blonde hair, tattooed hands crossed before him, rocks back and forth on his feet in front of her. This woman can feel him trying to reign in his swearwords as he tells his lawyer that his partner, she was the liar, it was he who was scared of her.
‘She scratched me, my face, with her fingernails,’ he says. The lawyer, a blonde woman about this woman’s age in high-heeled boots and a short skirt, looks unimpressed. He nods vigorously. ‘Took huge chunks out, left scars.’
This woman can’t see any scars. His skin is smooth, aside from a large red pimple on his neck. He turns and finds her eyes. She looks down at her book. She isn’t meant to be here.
But she is.
The short red-haired policeman, younger than her daughter, walks over with a smile.
‘Let’s hope they call you up soon, eh? There’s been a huge backlog since the quake. I don’t want you to have to come back tomorrow.’
No, she does not want to do this again. In fact, she doesn’t want to do this at all but the police will prosecute him for assault anyway, they tell her. The funny thing is this isn’t even close to the worst he’s done.
Today will be the first time she has seen him. She wishes she had slept.
Her sister texts.
Can’t get out of work sorry. Good luck.
This woman shakes so much in the dock that her hair falls out of her bun and she has to use two hands to bring the plastic cup of water to her mouth, two hands to tip it back. The policeman smiles, a mix of encouragement and pity.
‘Are you able to continue?’ the judge asks her.
‘…Yes.’ She coughs. She is having more and more trouble these days making her voice work. Words seem to get stuck in her throat.
‘Continue then – you were saying? You knew it was him?’
‘Yes.’ She clears her throat again. ‘I could hear a man barking at a dog down the street. I knew it was him.’
‘Barking…?’ He raises both white eyebrows, and then shrugs.
‘And the time was?’ the police prosecutor asks.
This woman tries to ignore her husband glaring at her from the pews, shaking his newly-shaved head. This isn’t the man with the long hair and soft touch she married fifteen years ago. She doesn’t recognise this man at all.
The judge rules two hundred hours of community service, and recommends the protection order remain in place. This woman leaves quickly, head down, avoiding her husband’s eyes.
There is a large dark bruise on this woman’s elbow.
‘How did you do that?’ her daughter asks.
This woman’s middle son opens the fridge and gets the milk out.
‘He did it,’ he says casually, pouring a glass. ‘He pushed her onto the floor.’
Her eldest son looks up from the couch.
‘What? She was up in my face. She was screaming at me.’ He turns back to the PlayStation, frowning.
‘Yeah. She was,’ her middle son confirms, blonde curls and milk moustache nodding.
Her daughter tells this woman she has to get out of the house.
‘No, it’s cold. It’ll be dark soon.’
‘I don’t care,’ her daughter says. ‘Go for a walk along the river. Just go see something. Anything.’
Foliage and flowers retreat, no longer masking cracks and decay. The broken city is laid bare, a mass of fractured concrete and piles of sand spewed up from the ground, piles still smelling faintly of the sewage a curving plastic pipe is humming and sucking from the ground, steam rising in the air. Rows of bright orange road-cones divert frustrated traffic into unfamiliar roads, an obstacle course that changes daily. Houses, waiting too long for insurance companies to find their paperwork in the pile, are burned to the ground in the night. People sit in newly-opened pubs, bright lights scattered randomly through darkness; drinking to ease the shakes and create quiet within themselves.
This woman’s youngest son brings her a piece of paper. Houses with flowers bursting through the windows; pineapples with smiley faces dancing underneath bright pink clouds. Her oldest son laughs.
‘Lost your grey pencil?’
Her youngest sighs.
‘They’re not clouds, stupid. They’re cherry blossoms.’
‘It’s not spring, stupid.’
‘It doesn’t have to be. It’s lovely anyway,’ this woman tells her youngest, wiping porridge from his school jumper. ‘Come on, you’re going to be late. Have you got your lunchbox?’
‘I don’t want to go.’
‘You promised you’d try.’
He frowns at the floor.
‘So did you.’
This woman wakes and sees a slice of blue out the window, birds littering the empty sky. She nudges her youngest son, asleep beside her.
‘Let’s go for a walk this afternoon.’
He yawns, nods and turns over.
This woman’s son runs ahead, stopping occasionally to investigate, pointing at grass growing in roof gutters, cracks in the road so wide he can fit three fingers in. Toxic signs are nailed to the trunks of bare trees along the river. They stop beside the twisted bridge and wonder at the warped wood following the steel’s new helix-like form without snapping.
‘I like it better like this,’ her son says.
The odd car bumps along the rubble, leaving her tightlipped against the dust. Only a few of the houses, randomly spared, show signs of life – rubbish bins out, a child’s bike flung onto a driveway. A man in gumboots is digging in his muddy yard behind a cracked concrete-block fence, three pots of petunias beside him, red hopeful against grey.
As they near the main road, with its newly sealed black smoothness and fresh paint, the sun blasts through cloud, turning the river orange, and lighting up the eucalyptus trees lining the front of the empty high school. Each silvery leaf is cast into perfect relief, glowing yellow now, almost white, against the blue-grey sky.
This woman stops, fascinated by this sudden radiance, this stark sharpness, these leaves frozen in light. For a moment, she thinks she can hear echoes of girlish laughter, reverberating through the trees, bouncing off the buildings wreathed in warning tape. She has a sudden urge to throw herself through one of those darkened windows, she wants a sharp pane of glass to slice her, to make a fine detail of herself, something precise.
She wants to take this feeling with her.
Her son stops, crouching to pick up the pieces of a red plate scattered across gravel.
‘I’m going to make a mosaic.’
She didn’t even know he knew what a mosaic was.
This woman texts her daughter.
Can’t do coffee today, sorry love. Not feeling great.
Her phone rings.
‘Nothing I’ve just got a …’
‘Mum. Not again.’
‘He just came round to see the kids. They want to see him.’
‘You’re not taking him back?’
‘I’ll ring you later okay? Trust me. He’s not staying.’
This woman cleans the house and lights the fire. She showers and puts on the blue dress he likes, checks her phone. She can hear her boys laughing in the sitting room. Scratchy voices. His voice.
‘Look at Dad!’ she hears, and then another burst of laughter. She puts her mascara down and walks into the lounge.
They are sitting on the couch, crowded around her youngest’s phone. This woman stands behind them, watching the footage recorded by her son that day, of their father wobbling in the doorway, their father only just returned from the night before, clutching a beer bottle, high on god knows what, eyes narrow and glassy, telling his son he’s stupid, he can’t do anything, he has no friends. Watches him following that woman who is holding the phone and walking in circles around the garden, occasionally rubbing her arm.
‘Feel good now? Ringing the cops on me again? Go on bitch. Bring it.’
This woman wants to tell that woman to hurry up and ring, to stop dithering with that stupid frown on her face, to stop pacing the garden like a senile cat, to stop that shaking, that pathetic shaking.
This woman watches him roll around on the concrete with two cops on his back, handcuffs wrenching his arms behind him. She hears her sons’ giggle in the background, sons who think the police coming around is normal, sons who think it’s okay to push their mother too.
‘Play it again,’ the middle one squeals, falling off the couch with a grin.
This woman walks into the bathroom and shuts the door. A crumpled cotton pad, smeared with yesterday’s mascara, has fallen from the basin to the floor. Long strings of black curls stick to the white shower wall. She can feel wetness upon her skin. She opens the window and waits for all the damp air to escape, but the coldness from outside seems to push it back in.
She touches her arm, thinking of that woman pacing around the garden. Another woman. Not her. She shuts the window, closes her eyes and rests her forehead against the glass, feeling the cool weight, the fragile resistance beneath. That woman. That woman oblivious to the blossom petals falling in slow eddying circles around her and him, oblivious to their children watching from the window. That woman. Her. Her forehead presses harder against the glass. Another peal of laughter from the sitting room. She is that woman. Her eyes open. Behind the glass, branches, black and bare, reach in perpetual frozen movement into the grey sky.
She lifts her fingers to the window, still there, feels the wetness of the pane, still there, the smoothness beneath each fingertip. Presses harder, fingers slipping. Still there. Harder. Still –