People step carefully through the doorway, as if not trusting the floor. One by one they move into the hall. The man before me has his hands clasped behind his back, his shoulders hunched and his head poked forward. He takes slow, spiky steps like a wading bird. The estate agent stands to one side with her clipboard, her smooth hair and black suit. She speaks in a low, sombre voice, asking for names and phone numbers. I wait until she’s busy with a middle-aged couple and duck past, slip through and down to the back bedroom.
My old room. Apricot paint, fake brass doorknobs, the built-in cupboard where I hid my Jack Daniels and Winnie Blues. There are dints in the carpet from where furniture’s been, the four legs of a bed against the wall – the same place mine was – and a desk or table opposite, where I had a bookshelf. I’d forgotten about the curtains – small gold and pink flowers. I go closer, touch the thick material, breathe its plasticky smell.
I chose it at Spotlight, where huge rolls of fabric lay in pyramids on trestle tables under lights that did seem extra dazzling. My mother beside me, heat in the bare skin of her arm as she reached across, pulling a corner out to see properly. Riding our bikes back to the new house, the fat plastic-bag package jouncing in my mother’s old-style wicker basket.
Those first few hot evenings she sat at the kitchen table with the sewing machine. The room was still piled with boxes, some opened, half-unpacked. A loose pile of newspaper sheets lay in a corner and the hem of my mother’s cheesecloth skirt caught them every time she passed, sent the top layers drifting over the f loor.
I swam in the pool, alone out in the dark, hung at the edge looking in at her, the light falling on her bent head, her busy hands. ‘You don’t have to do them now,’ I called.
‘But I want to.’ She paused for a moment, looked up, smiled. ‘You need something special in your new room.’
Cicadas buzzing somewhere behind me, and the buzz, the energy in her like electricity as she gathered the reams of material, straightened them and held them in place, lowered her foot on the pedal. The high, excited whirr of the engine.
When they were hung, with their rows of clacking wooden rings and their loose threads, she jumped down from the chair and snatched up her wine glass from the bookshelf, raising it in a toast. ‘Ta-da! ’ Her warm wine breath on my cheek, the closeness of her body. ‘Happy?’ she said, and I nodded and pulled away, out of her arms, disapproval like a lump in my throat. ‘Oh, come on, Anna.’ She made a half-hearted grab at me, her fingers glancing off my arm. And then, ‘Ah, teenagers,’ she said, as if that was the real reason, and turned away. I saw her look in the mirror, touching her hair. I saw that glow in her, that anticipation, and I knew Ian would be coming over, and my anger rose in an acid wash and I wanted to pull the stupid curtains down and rip them up, tear them with my teeth. I wanted to grow into a giant and stomp all over the new house, grind it into the ground under my feet.
A woman enters the room. Without looking at me she goes to the cupboard doors and opens them. Closes them again and walks out.
I follow. The wading-bird man is in the kitchen, hands still behind his back. He makes his way along the bench, dips his head at the window above the sink, turns and steps towards the laundry. The middle-aged couple come in. The woman runs the tap. ‘Good water pressure,’ she says. The man nods, pulls open a drawer. The sounds clang in the bare room.
I stand in the middle of the floor. My eyes keep drifting to the place on the bald white wall where the clock was. I don’t know what I expected, coming here today. Everything’s supposed to look smaller when you go back somewhere, but that’s not what’s happening. Instead I feel small – shrunken, tiny, creeping through these empty rooms unnoticed by the assessing visitors, the potential buyers, those who have a right to be here.
I go to the glass doors and look out at the pool. The water lies clear and f lat and secretive.
‘One of these gas burners doesn’t light,’ says the woman behind me.
‘Yes,’ says the man. ‘A few things need a bit of work.’
My phone rings as I’m driving home. I pull over and dig it out of my bag. It’s Carl. I let it ring out and wait a minute, then dial the voicemail service. I miss you, he whispers, his voice close and slightly muff led, as if he’s got his hand cupped around the phone. There are sounds in the background – music, chatter, a child’s shriek. I picture a backyard barbecue, children, families. Carl’s wife I imagine as olive-skinned and tall. I know the smell of her perfume, from his car. And I know she has long dark hair because I’ve found a strand clinging to his suit coat. I’ll try to get out some time, Carl’s recorded whisper goes on. Maybe tonight. I could go for a run.
A girl passes, walking a dog. Everything hangs from her in neat lines – her hair, the dog’s leash, the white cords of her earphones.
Through the windscreen her eyes slide onto mine and for a moment her face remains completely blank, but I must meet her gaze in the wrong way or look back for too long because something flickers in her expression and she drops her head, adjusts the leash and quickens her pace.
I turn off the engine, sit looking at the phone in my hand. I think about the message my mother left last week. ‘Did you see Harvey Street’s up for auction?’ It had been hard to tell if it was the line or if her voice had been trembling slightly. ‘I wonder what it’s like these days, if anything’s changed over the years.’ A pause. ‘Anyway, I thought I’d let you know … I hope all’s well with you – work, and … everything.’ Another pause. ‘Bye.’ I poured myself a glass of wine and replayed the message. Her voice was shaky, I was sure. I listened to it another time – the way she almost stumbled over the words Harvey Street, as if it was an effort to say. Alone in my f lat I whispered them myself. Harvey Street, Harvey Street. I poured more wine and deleted the message.
I couldn’t stand how happy she seemed, how full of cheer. Even when we’d been packing up at the old house, which felt like scraping up a residue, what remained at the edges of the holes already left by my father. The gaping spaces that had been his clothes, his books, his records, his writing on shopping lists. The smell of his shaving cream in the bathroom.
Even then my mother treated the whole thing like some exciting, big adventure – eating take-away in a room full of boxes, sleeping on our mattresses on the floor once the beds had been dismantled. And she went on and on about the new house. About the pool, how lucky we were to find a little two-bedroom place with its own swimming pool. How much closer it was to her work and my school, how much easier it was going to be to keep clean.
When she pulled the couch away from the wall, an old birthday card from my father was revealed, pressed against the skirting board under a veil of dust. He always used postcards, so the words were right there, facing out. Even upside down they glared, his blockish lettering in one of those thick felt-tip pens he kept in his desk drawer – To my darling Sue. All my love. My mother knocked it with the broom and it came unstuck, slid down into the pile of sweepings. ‘Oh,’ she said, and bent and picked it up. There was a silence, and she tried to hug me, to squeeze my shoulder. ‘I know it’s a hard time,’ she said. I felt like something she was trying to mould, to warm with her hands and work into shape, while I tried to shrink, to pull myself inwards and away from her touch. ‘I know it’s hard,’ she said.
I’m ironing a shirt when Carl calls. I stand with the phone in my hand, looking at the screen. I don’t answer. I hold the phone and wait. It rings again straight away. I answer it.
‘You home?’ He sounds breathless.
I pause. I straighten the iron, put my hand on the warm sleeve of the shirt. My voice is f lat with irritation. ‘Yeah?’
‘Oh.’ Now he sounds nervous. ‘Well, can I…? I’m just out the front.’
I go to the window but I can’t see him. Just the empty street, the tram tracks shining.
‘Where are you?’ I put my forehead to the glass. Directly below is a straggling line of shrubs, and the concrete overhang that shelters the entrance to the building.
‘Here.’ He moves into view, a white blob at the edge of my vision. I blink, look properly. He waves. From above he looks short and squat. He’s in jogging gear. His shoes glow white.
‘Well?’ He waves again, wobbles his head in a little parody of impatience. ‘Can I come up?’
I look back across the road but there’s still nobody else there. It’s as if Carl and I are the only people left in the whole, empty world. I turn back to the room, reach for my almost-empty glass of wine.
‘Yeah,’ I say into the phone. ‘Okay.’
The night before we moved, I spoke to my father on the phone. He told me about his apartment in Sydney, how you could see the harbour and the bridge. How he caught a ferry to work. ‘Wow,’ I said. ‘Great.’ Standing inside the dark rectangle where the telephone table had been, the body of the phone dangling from the receiver, banging against my knee. The cord looping through dust balls.
‘I’m sorry you couldn’t come,’ he said.
The skin around my mouth felt numb, like I’d been at the dentist.
‘It’s just – best for everyone I think, at the moment, if you stay with Mum.’
‘And there’s school, and everything …’
‘I know it’s a hard time for you. For all of us.’
It was as if I could only say the one word. ‘Yeah.’
Another voice then, in the background, and him answering quickly
– ‘One minute’ – and then the creak of a chair, papers shuff ling.
‘Listen, I’d better go, Chookie. I’ll give you a call next week, at the new house, okay?
‘Don’t let me fall asleep,’ says Carl, tucking himself into my back, resting a hand on my hip.
I stare into the shadows of the room, at his sneakers gleaming in the middle of the f loor, the two empty socks on either side. They glow too, like the shed skins of phosphorescent snakes. His wife must Napisan everything. My mouth is dry, my teeth rough from the wine.
Carl sighs, shifts closer. He adjusts his thighs against the backs of mine. ‘Mmm,’ he says. ‘I could lie here forever.’
‘I went to look at a house today.’ My voice takes me by surprise. It sounds so clear, so intentional.
‘Yeah.’ I wriggle away from him, lift myself on one elbow, take my glass from the bedside table. ‘It’s up for auction. I lived there when I was a teenager, with my mum. For a little while.’
Carl doesn’t answer. His eyes are closed. I swallow down the last mouthful of wine. ‘We moved there after my parents split up. I must’ve been fourteen – fifteen, maybe. My dad went to Sydney. For a job.’ I watch his face. He doesn’t move. ‘We were all supposed to go, but then at the last minute they broke up instead.’
There’s a silence, and then Carl says, sleepily, ‘Oh yeah?’
‘Yeah.’ I dip my finger in the glass, in the little trail of grit that curves up the side of it. ‘My mum had this new boyfriend.’
New Year’s Eve. I sat in my room with its f lowered curtains and smoked a cigarette, not even bothering to lean out the window.
My mother’s heels clipped through the house. Her singing voice trailed in and out of earshot. Dancing in the ci-ity, ooh-ooooh. ‘You ready?’ she called. ‘Ian’s on his way.’
In the mirror on the inside of the cupboard door I watched my lips open for the cigarette, the dangle of my hand over my crossed legs, the jut of my shoulder. I pushed back my hair, stiff with chlorine, tucked it behind my ears. Head spinning from the smoke I stood, swayed closer to the mirror, dabbed cover-up on my pimples.
The doorbell rang. ‘Let’s go! ’ called my mother.
When we arrived my mother asked if there was a TV I could watch, and I was directed to someone’s bedroom. There was a musty, personal smell and the only place to sit was on the bed. There were clothes on the f loor and draped over a chair – a woman’s blouses, skirts, pants. Work clothes. On the f loor beside the bed lay a pair of underpants tangled up inside some stockings. There was nothing to watch on the tiny TV except for old movies and cricket replays.
After a while I got up and skulked around through the rooms of the house. People ignored me. I didn’t know any of them. They were Ian’s friends. Almost everyone was squashed in the lounge room, dancing to Rod Stewart and The Bee Gees. My mother was there, and Ian, both of them red in the face, dancing up close to each other. I picked up a glass of champagne from a table and drank some. Ian looked around. I put the glass down and moved back towards the door. I was sure his eyes followed me. Nothing else changed though – his body kept swaying, his arms around my mother, his hands low on her back, pressing into her. Only his face, his eyes, tracking me across the room. I turned away from them and went out.
In the toilet hung a calendar showing cartoons of famous sportspeople with enormous noses and genitals. I leafed through the pages with a guilty, disgusted thrill – men and women with bright pink dangling parts escaping from small white shorts, skirts or bathing suits. A tennis player leaped with her racquet, labia impossibly long and wrinkled, like the things that hang from under the beaks of roosters. From the lounge room came the thud of music. Someone rattled the doorhandle and I slunk out, my face burning.
In the kitchen I found a can of beer. I took it back to the bedroom. I lay across the bottom of Ian’s friend’s bed and drank in small, regular sips, swallowing joylessly down on the yeasty fizz and clicking through the channels on the TV remote control. Down the hall the music throbbed. Voices rose and fell. I found a magazine and looked through it. What men really want in bed. I stared at the photo of a man and a woman lying half covered by a sheet. The light gleaming on his muscled arms, the smooth line of her thigh. The clean curve of the side of her breast where it was pushed up against his bare skin. Eyes closed, mouths open. They both had their heads tipped back, as if gasping for air. I looked from one face to the other, and the more I looked the more private their expressions seemed, as if, inside their heads, they had both gone off to different places, far away from the hard closeness of their interlocked bodies. I looked at the words beside the picture, scanned the first paragraph. 35% said anal. I let the pages fall shut, the magazine drop back to the f loor. I got up off the bed. My legs felt loose, my joints stretched, my limbs heavy. I went to look for something else to drink.
When it was time for the countdown my mother came to find me. She led me to the lounge room, into the press of bodies, the fug of smoke. ‘Ten! Nine! Eight! ’ people yelled.
My mother pulled me close. ‘Ian! Ian! ’ she called, craning her neck, darting her head this way and that.
‘Six! Five! Four! ’
‘Where is he?’ My mother swung me around, leaning to peer into the crowd. ‘I wanted to–’
‘Three! Two! One! ’
‘Ian! ’ My mother whirled again and I dragged along like ballast.
‘Happy New Year! ’ A f lurry of hugging and kissing. A champagne cork popping.
‘Happy New Year! ’ Ian appeared and my mother grabbed at him with her free arm. ‘Whoah – easy there,’ he said, taking her hand. ‘Sue, I’m right here.’
‘I’m sorry.’ She lunged closer with me still in tow. She laughed breathlessly and reached up to kiss him. ‘I just wanted to be with you when the moment came.’
‘I’m here.’ He kissed her back. Under the light his face was shiny, his eyes red. I stared into them, stared until he looked away.
The taxi ride home. My head against the back of the seat as if pressed there by centrifugal force, like on the Gravitron. My mother’s hot body beside me, touching against my leg, my arm, somewhere there at the far-off outer layers of me. Ian laughing on the far side of her. Street lights blurred into fuzzy haloes. Cars, buildings, trees f licking in blocks of shadow.
‘Did you have an okay time?’ came my mother’s distant voice.
‘Was there anything good on TV?’
My own voice sounded just as faint. ‘Not really.’
Back at the house she kicked off her shoes. ‘I’m hungry,’ she said.
‘Let’s have a snack. A midnight feast.’ She clapped her hands and skipped like a child into the kitchen. I followed, passed her, opened the sliding door and went out.
The pool was so still it almost didn’t look like water. There was a moon, no clouds. I didn’t see Ian behind me in the doorway but I could tell he was there.
It was so easy not to think, to stand at the edge and lift my dress slowly over my head. I could see myself, how he would see me. My legs, the new swell of my hips, the shape of me showing through my underpants, the lines of my back. I wasn’t wearing a bra – I still forgot to, sometimes. My dress got stuck over my head. The rasping of its fabric in my ears was loud. I think I wobbled then, and I think I heard him step forward, say something – ‘Look out’ – but then it was off, dropped to the bricks, and I was in, under, the water cooler than I expected, fizzing faintly against me. I kept my eyes closed, kicking gently, right down low, pulling myself along with lazy arms. I felt my hair f loat, touching my shoulders. I skated my fingers along the bottom. I reached for the wall, the end, and there it was. I surfaced and the air burst over my face, and I shook the hair from my eyes and turned to see him there in the doorway, a black figure of a man.
And it was so easy to pull myself out and to walk towards him, slowly and without making a sound, staring at where I knew his eyes would be in the shadows of his face. I could feel the air on my skin, the tightening of my nipples, the warmth still in the bricks under my feet.
When I got close he stepped forward. He had my dress and he held it out, kind of shook it at me like he was angry. But I could see his face by then, the way he couldn’t stop himself looking. I ignored the dress, him shaking it. I stood still.
Up until then I hadn’t felt anything inside, only the outside sensations – the cool air and the water, the warm bricks, and the way my body met with those things – and even they were dulled, faraway, on the other side of the deaf barrier of my drunkenness. But now a feeling broke through. A f lat, sad, adult feeling. It rose like a bubble in my throat. I looked down at myself, my small, high breasts, my lean thighs and stomach, my skin glowing in the warm light from the kitchen, and I swallowed, tried to squash the feeling into nothing. But it didn’t go away. It got worse. As I looked at my body and saw what Ian saw. As my mother came barefooted out with a plate of biscuits and cheese, her voice a cheery f lutter that faltered and dropped. As I put my fingers over my hips, to my underpants, felt the wet cotton start to roll as I pushed them down.
When I finish talking I look at Carl. His eyes are open now. I swing my legs off the bed. ‘I’m going to get more wine. Want some?’
He doesn’t answer, just watches as I get up and go out to the other room. I fill my glass and wave the bottle at him but he shakes his head. He’s pulled the sheet right up almost to his chin.
We lie in silence. I sip and lean my head back against the wall.
‘So …’ he says after a while. His voice is quiet but not silky, not his in-bed voice, and it’s not hesitant either – his will-she-be-in-the-mood voice. It’s quiet, with a gentle, real kind of interest. ‘What happened?’ I shrug. ‘They broke up. She was devastated, of course. But she met another man, eventually, and they’re still together now.’ Another silence. He smooths a hand over the sheet.
‘I think she believed him – Ian – that it wasn’t his fault. But still …’ I try to smile but it feels awkward. ‘He didn’t look away, did he? He didn’t go back inside.’
Carl makes a small noise in the back of his throat. ‘No,’ he says. ‘I meant, what happened to you?’
‘Me?’ I glance at him. His head is bowed, hands careful on the sheet. I feel an urge to shove him, to give him a friendly punch to the shoulder, to say Lighten up – it’s not that big a deal. ‘Well, they finally let me go to Sydney. To live with my dad.’
He looks up at me then, and there’s a little crease of concern between his brows. ‘But how did you – I mean, that kind of an introduction … Did you – I mean, weren’t you–’
I stare into his eyes. ‘What are you asking? Did it get me off to a bad start?’
Outside a tram passes and I can’t tell if the low, heavy rhythm of it is something I hear or feel as a vibration in the thin walls of the f lat. I take another sip of wine, rest the glass on my stomach. I look past him, at the window with its open curtains. The sky is getting dark, turning a deep blue. I picture him jogging away into the dusk, his sneakers ghostly pale, moving up and down, f lashing smaller and smaller and finally into nothing. I am filled with a cool, empty relief.
‘What do you think, Carl?’
At the auction the crowd gathers across the road, leaving the strip of footpath directly outside the gate for the auctioneer, who struts up and down it brandishing his rolled-up pamphlet. I stand to one side, in the shelter of a parked car. The wading-bird man and the middle-aged couple are there. Their faces pop out at me as if they are people I actually know.
The auctioneer’s voice pounds away like a machine, ‘–on this fine morning, and make no mistake ladies and gentlemen, we’re here today–’ and I keep my eyes on the crowd, the patient faces and the impatient ones, the guarded, the nervy, the bored. I don’t look at the house.
The middle-aged woman whispers something to the middle-aged man and he nods. The wading-bird man stretches out his neck and resettles his shoulders. Past them, at the far side of the crowd, there’s a movement, a shuff ling of people, and my mother comes into view. She edges in, stands on tiptoes, looks round at the man behind her and smiles apologetically.
‘Just picture yourself,’ the auctioneer is yelling. ‘A weekend afternoon – a lovely day such as this. A barbecue. A swim in the pool.’ I watch my mother, the anxious bob of her head. She can’t seem to keep still, to pay proper attention. ‘Picture yourself,’ the auctioneer yells. ‘What a life, in this house. What a future.’
My mother, at the kitchen table, hands in position on the thick, f lowered fabric. Her face as she raised it to me. Her wide, inclusive smile, full of hope.
I look down at my feet, at the gutter, at the tyres of the car. I lift onto my toes and swivel. I take a step. ‘Excuse me,’ I whisper to the woman at the edge of the crowd. She glances at me and moves back. ‘Excuse me,’ I whisper, sliding past the next person, and the next.
‘Sorry,’ I whisper, turning myself sideways, edging through. ‘I’m sorry.’ The auctioneer’s voice drills on. The crowd ripples as I make my way through it. I keep my eyes on my mother. I reach my hand out to her.