Shelter (first published in Headland Journal, Issue 8)
The zoo was kind of dumb really but it was better than doing nothing. Lily had been hanging around at Maria’s house since shortly after 8am that morning and they’d just been yelled at for making too much noise, again.
The girls helped themselves to some biscuits, chippies and a couple of bottles of coke. Lily packed their supplies in her knapsack. Maria carried the money her mother had given them.
They were stopped just inside the zoo gates by the man who takes souvenir photographs. He must have had half a dozen photos of Lily and Maria. He said they just needed to ask their parents to call and they would get a lovely photographic memory of the day but neither of them had ever convinced their parents to pay for one of his pictures.
They wandered around their favourite places. Lily liked the sun bears. They waited half an hour to see if the one who was pacing by the water would get in. He didn’t. Maria wanted to watch the chimpanzees’ tea party. It always made the girls laugh even though Lily remembered her mother saying it wasn’t natural and zoos were animal prisons with inmates that should be set free. Lily wondered where the lion was supposed to go but would happily have taken home a monkey or two.
After the tea party they went to see the farmyard. There were a couple of sheep, some chickens and three ponies; Duke, Star and Arrow. Sometimes, there’d be older kids from the pony club sweeping out the stalls. Lily thought about asking if she could help too but she was only ten and didn’t know how to ride. The pony club kids all looked older than her and they had the sort of clothes you saw on TV, with proper riding boots and hats. Maria said she knew how to ride and you didn’t need all that gear, it was just to look poncey. Lily wasn’t sure. She might ask next time.
The girls were leaning on the fence eating their biscuits when they heard one of the ponies being led along the path towards the enclosure.
“Come on Duke. Nearly there. Not far now boy,” the keeper was saying . They turned to see a large, ruddy faced boy smiling from the saddle at his mother. His younger brothers were standing beside her, bickering.
“Muuum! He pinched me!”
“Be quiet, or neither of you will have a turn,” she snapped before her smile returned as she photographed her eldest son.
The three boys looked like over-stuffed sausages, pink flesh escaping at neck and wrists.
“Gee,” Maria said quietly to Lily, “imagine lugging him around.”
Lily stared at the boy, silently willing him to fall off. He was pulling on the reins, tugging Duke’s head upwards and digging his heels into the animal’s side. Lily watched as the pony passed, his breath making dragon puffs in the autumnal air. She felt him stare deeply into her eyes and was sure he was asking for her help.
“Maria?” Lily nudged her to get her attention, “We should set Duke free.”
Maria looked at the pony then at Lily and smiled broadly. The girls continued to lean on the fence and watched as the boy dismounted clumsily, and his brothers rushed forward, squabbling over who was to have the next ride.
“It’s not fair,” said Lily. “I bet Duke hates lugging kids around.”
“Yeah, especially them!” Maria picked up Lily’s knapsack, “Come on, let’s go see the lion.”
After unsuccessfully testing their telepathy on the sleeping lion, they attempted to get a gibbon to reach through the bars for a biscuit. He wasn’t interested so they fed the leftovers to a crowd of pigeons.
“I’ve got fifty cents,” Maria said on their way out of the zoo, “want to get some hot chips?”
They sat in the sun on the steps of the Ascot Cinema and ate. Lily looked at the posters advertising coming attractions; Sinbad the Sailor and Dirty Harry. “Karl wants to see that.”
“It’s an R.”
“Yeah, but he reckons they don’t check.”
The girls licked the salt from their fingers and started for home. They passed a church with a wedding party gathered in front. The photographer was gesturing for everyone to huddle together.
“Mum’s icing Vera’s cake today,” Maria said. “We can make stuff with the left over marzipan when she’s finished if you want?”
“Nah, maybe tomorrow? Save some and we can make marzipan ponies!”
“Cool. Can I come and see Inky’s kittens soon?” Maria asked when they got to her house.
“After school next week? Mum said to wait ‘cos they’re still really tiny.”
Lily continued up the hill to the flats where she lived with her parents and older brother, Karl. Behind the property was an overgrown bank covered with dense bush. Karl and his friends could often be found down there smoking stolen cigarettes after school. Sometimes though, he’d let Lily hang out with him. Karl would take his coloured pencils and draw pictures to go with the stories she made up. They talked about building a fort and not telling anyone, a secret place for only the two of them.
Lily walked through the back garden where her mother was still ripping out weeds. She’d been there all day, attempting to create order in the oxalis-ridden beds.
“Did you have a nice time?” she asked. “Karl’s upstairs with his friends.”
Lily sighed. Ever since Karl was brought home by the police for shoplifting, he wasn’t allowed downtown on the weekend. Instead, he took over their room, Meccano constructions spread across the floor.
She stopped by the laundry and peered in. Her cat had given birth two weeks ago. Lily had been woken in the night by mewing. Her mother was already downstairs and had gestured for her to enter quietly. There were two ginger kittens curled in the box beside Inky, a young tortoiseshell cat. There’ll be two or three more, her mother said. Lily had leaned against the door and watched while one black and two tabby kittens were born. When she reached towards them her mother had said not to touch them yet, they needed a few days to get settled first. Then she had bustled Lily back upstairs to bed.
Three of the kittens were hungrily feeding and two were sleeping on top of each other. Lily bent down and patted Inky. She could hear the boys’ laughter through the floorboards.
She went to the living room bookcase and picked up the battered copy of Black Beauty that had been her mother’s. She took the book, a cushion and a rug back to the laundry and settled herself in the corner.
“The first place that I can well remember…” Lily began to read.
She stayed there for the rest of the afternoon, reading aloud until Inky’s kittens slept and the cat curled on Lily’s lap. She heard her brother’s friends leave and her father come home. She didn’t move until her mother called them to the table for dinner.
That evening, Karl and Lily went up to bed early. The minute their door closed, their father’s sharp tone could be heard downstairs, puncturing the silence that had filled the room during dinner, as he cut across something their mother was trying to explain.
While they got ready for bed, Lily told Karl a story about a sad chestnut pony who was sick of being ridden by rough boys. When the sound of raised voices reached her, Lily lay on her back staring at the posters decorating her side of the room. There was a polar bear resting on a sun-lit ice floe and a black stallion whose eyes stared straight at the camera and would follow her around the room. She dreamt she was riding the pony from the zoo. She galloped along paths through the town belt then stopped to rest on the crest of a hill, looking out across the city. Lily took two perfect, red apples from her knapsack, ate one and gave one to the pony.
On Monday the girls walked home together after school. Past the dairy where Maria had dared Lily to nick something. I bet you’re too chicken she had said on Lily’s first day, a year ago. And she was, but this was a new school, no more goody-two-shoes. She had stood by the lolly counter for ages trying to decide what to take, aware of the shopkeeper’s eyes on her, then she moved to the open freezer where the popsicles were. Finally, in desperation, she had left the shop and nabbed a potato from the vegetable stand out the front. Run, she mouthed at Maria. Two blocks down the road she had grabbed Maria and pulled her around a corner where they leant, panting against a garage door. What did you get? Maria had asked. Lily had opened her hand to reveal the single dirty potato and Maria sank to the footpath laughing. Lily had shrugged, she wasn’t brave, everyone said so. Her brother was the adventurer. He’d always been a handful, their parents would say, before praising Lily for her common sense. A year on and Maria would still crack herself up just by opening an empty palm and mouthing potato as they walked along the main street.
The girls continued on past the pet shop where Karl once bought a mouse for twenty-five cents. A week later one mouse had become nine, so he liberated them down the bank before their parents noticed the smell.
“I’m going to set him free,” Lily said.
“Duke. The pony. I’m going to.”
“Okay. Yeah,” Maria nodded. “Where will we keep him?”
“I reckon we can make a shelter for him down the bank.”
“That’d be cool fun.” Maria smiled, “Hey, we can ride him too. This’ll be so neat!”
“We could go to my Granddad’s tomorrow and get some building stuff. Can you come?”
“Sure.” Maria grinned, “Maybe Karl can help us, with carrying the wood?”
“Alright.” Lily knew Maria liked him, and they’d need some help anyway. “We’ll have to make a proper home for Duke, ok?”
“Yeah and it’ll be our own place.” Maria reached into her bag. “Oh, I forgot to give you this.” She handed Lily a slightly squished marzipan horse.
Lily and Karl’s grandfather lived in a one bedroom flat a short walk from their house. He never asked how school was going, or how Lily’s Mum and Dad were getting on since the move to town. He was just glad that they could visit more often now. Their mother said he was a collector, the last of a by-gone breed. He was always stashing bits of wood, wire and roofing iron just in case. If someone was throwing it out, Granddad would take it home. Most of it was junk, Lily’s father said. But Lily and Karl didn’t notice the mess and weren’t embarrassed when he made conversation with strangers or asked the biscuit factory man if he could take home the broken ones. They happily dunked the biscuit pieces into condensed milk straight out of the can and watched daytime television while he tinkered away on some project.
He continued searching for the copper wire he needed. “So, they finally taught you some woodwork at school, eh Karl?”
“Yeah, a bit.”
Karl and his friend Ben, who had come along to help out, were at the new intermediate school and had recently made wooden pencil cases.
“You helping with this hut too, Lily?”
“Yeah, it was my idea. It’s going to be our hideout, like you had, Granddad.” Lily had made them all promise to keep the pony part of the scheme a secret. “Do you have any wood we can use?”
“Sure I do. Righto, pass me a pencil and I’ll do you a plan.”
He wrote some measurements on a scrap of paper and, while the four of them shared his Meals on Wheels dessert, he sorted out what they would need. It took three trips to get everything home and tucked away behind the shed.
They worked on the shelter every day after school and over the following weekend. Maria was late on Saturday because she had a dress fitting. Lily had been cross but it wasn’t Maria’s fault; it took ages and she had to wait while they decided what sort of veil her sister was having. The wedding was making her mum and dad grouchier than usual and now Lily was sulking cos they were about to run out of wood.
“You shouldn’t have wasted that big piece making a stupid gun,” Lily said.
“It’s ok, we’ll go to Granddad’s.” Karl winked at Maria. “See if we can get some biscuits as well as wood.”
Maria and Lily nailed an old blanket over the doorway then stood inside the shelter, testing it for size. The southerly wind found its way in, cutting through their jumpers and making their noses run.
“Do you think Duke will miss the other ponies?” Lily wondered aloud.
“Nah, this is cool. He’ll like it here, away from all those dumb zoo kids and we can give him carrots and apples and those sugar cubes your granddad has.” said Maria. “We’ll hang out with him all the time.”
She reached into her bag and pulled out a packet of Pall Mall menthol. “Found them in Vera’s room, want one?”
The girls eyed each other and the packet until Lily reached out and grabbed a cigarette.
“Have you got a light?”
“Yeah!” Maria tried to cup the match the way her father did. “You have to suck or it won’t work.”
Lily spluttered and the cigarette glowed red in the dim light of the hut. The girls passed it back and forth between them, holding it the way they’d seen Tatum O’Neil do in Paper Moon. They puffed, blowing out more air than they inhaled, careful not to breathe too deeply and start another choking fit. The filter was soon damp and their mouths tasted of fire and peppermint. Lily thought she might be sick.
“We should put it out before Karl gets back, eh?”
“Yeah.” They stood outside the hut, breathing the cold air deeply.
“Can you help tomorrow?’ Lily asked. “We should go to the zoo and see Duke too.”
“Nah, I’ve got to go to church then we are all having lunch with Vera’s fiancé,” Maria rolled her eyes.
“What about next week?”
“Should be ok. Got some wedding stuff, another dress fitting.” Maria half grimaced but Lily knew she was excited about being a bridesmaid.
The girls sat silently, watching the clouds scud across the sky, the damp seeping through their jeans.
The next morning Lily was woken by a paw stretching out and prodding her cheek. She kept her eyes closed and, lifting the top cover, reached out for Inky, firmly stroking her back, encouraging her to snuggle back down.
On the other side of room, Karl was still asleep, the blankets pulled over his head. Ziggy Stardust watching from one wall and Dirty Harry from the other. Cold morning air made Lily pull the blankets more tightly around her but Inky wouldn’t settle. A plaintive mew was followed by another pat on the cheek and Lily knew she’d have to get up. It was three weeks since the kittens were born and Inky was always hungry. Lily’s mother said they were sucking Inky dry and it was Lily’s job to remember to give her more breakfast and not to make her wait. She reached under the bed for her slippers, grabbed her dressing gown and went quietly down to the kitchen.
Inky ran ahead. Three of her kittens were mewing at the bottom of the stairs, not big enough to climb up after her. She picked the black one up in her mouth and carried him back to the nesting box in the laundry, the other two tumbling in their rush to keep up. Lily brought in a dish of food and tried to keep the kittens out of the way so Inky could eat. She lifted them into the box where the two little tabbies were sleeping but they quickly escaped, crawling over each other to their mother, the biggest two tugging on her tail. Inky turned and swiftly nipped at their ears.
“Come on, let’s eat in the other room.”
Lily picked up Inky and the bowl then closed the door so the kittens were kept inside. Tomorrow she’d see if Maria could come over after school. They’d been so busy with the shelter she hadn’t even shown her the kittens.
“I’m sorry I’ve neglected you,” Lily said as she carried Inky and breakfast for both of them into the living room. They were sitting together in front of the bar heater sharing some toast when Lily’s mother popped her head around the door.
“You’re up early. I want you to try the frock on before you go rushing off anywhere, ok?”
Lily’s mother was making her a dress to wear to Maria’s sister’s wedding. It was lemon coloured with ruffles on the skirt that would swish when she walked. They’d gone shopping for the material four weeks ago; the morning after her mother threw the hearth brush at her father. Lily had been leaning against her father’s chair, stroking Inky’s belly, feeling the kittens squirming inside her, when her mother suddenly threw the brush, narrowly missing the cat. Lily couldn’t remember what they’d been arguing about but she could still feel the sting of heavy wood against her ankle bone then being carried to her room and falling asleep while their shouted words drifted upstairs. The next day her mother said she’d make Lily a dress to wear to the wedding and she had insisted that there be new shoes to match.
Lily was standing on a chair while her mother checked the hem when her father walked in. “What do you think, Dad?” she asked.
“Hmmm, alright. Can’t see why your black shoes wouldn’t have worked though.”
“Well,” her mother smiled brightly. “I’ll just finish off and you’re all set for next weekend.”
Lily stepped out of the dress and pulled her jeans and jumper back on. She left her parents to their silence. Inky was back with her kittens, lying on her side with three of them feeding. Lily picked up the little black one and he sneezed. She patted him for a while then bent down to look at the others.
“Inky, you need to wash their faces,” she said and took a hanky from her pocket to wipe their weepy eyes.
Upstairs Karl was reading a comic in bed.
“Want to help me with the hut?” she asked.
“Nah, it’s too cold. It’s just about finished anyway.”
“We could paint a sign for the door.”
“Nah, I’m busy.”
She flopped down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. Maria was doing wedding stuff and she didn’t feel like calling anyone else. She’d go to the park. You could get a good view into the zoo from there.
It was a crisp morning and as she walked, she passed a few families on their way to the zoo, small children pulling their parents towards the gates. Lily sat at the top of the high slide, looking over the fence to where the sheep and ponies were kept. She saw Arrow, chewing the grass in his paddock and the keeper brushing Duke’s mane. She’d have to get a brush and a blanket, in case he got cold in the shelter at night.
An hour later she wandered home. She was opening the door when she heard her father’s voice.
“What’ll you tell the kids?”
“They’re sick, there’s nothing we can do,” her mother was saying. “It’s the kindest thing and I can do it quickly and painlessly.”
“Do what?” Lily asked.
Her parents turned, their expressions hidden in the darkness of the hallway.
“Lily,” her mother stepped towards her, “the kittens are sick. They’ll just go to sleep. They –“
“But…they were fine, I was with them this morning,” she stammered.
“No Lily,” her father put his hand on her shoulder.
She stepped back. “I can look after them, we can get some medicine and they’ll get better.”
“It doesn’t work like that Lily. We have to do this.”
She stood in the doorway staring at her parents; her father’s eyebrows pulling together and her mother biting her lower lip.
“Lily,” her father said as she turned away from them.
“Let her go. She’ll be back in a bit.”
Lily ran to Maria’s house. Maybe she’d be home from the dress fitting by now. Lily pushed open the back door.
No one answered so she went upstairs to Maria’s room. Lily was lying on the bed staring blankly at a Bay City Rollers poster and wondering what she was going to do when she heard raised voices.
“Shut up you little snot.”
“Fatso!” Maria said.
“Shut up!” her sister yelled. “I’m not fat. Mum, you can’t see, can you?”
“Maria, go to your room!”
A door slammed and the voices were muffled. Feet thumped up the stairs and Maria burst into the room.
Lily was standing by the bed. “Are you alright?” she asked.
“What are you doing here?” Maria wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.
“I…Mum says the kittens are sick but...”
“I want to paint a sign on the shelter for Duke and I came to see if you could come and help me.” Lily was crying now and Maria was staring at her.
“Stop being a cry baby! What’s the point of painting a sign?”
“For Duke. I went to the park this morning and I could see him. We need to get a brush and a blanket because it might get cold at night but I think I can find an old one and -”
“We’re not really going to get Duke out.” Maria started to laugh. “It was just a dumb idea. Don’t be so stupid!”
The girls looked at each other. Someone, maybe both of them, yelled ‘I hate you’. The words snapped in the air between them. Lily ran downstairs and out of the house. She didn’t slow down until she was halfway up the bank. She heard Karl laughing and smelled cigarette smoke. She stopped to catch her breath and looked at the lopsided hut. There were gaps between the boards where wind and rain would easily enter. Lily walked on, wiping her eyes on her jumper. In the back garden she climbed into the branches of the macrocarpa tree. She sat there until Karl and Ben walked past on their way into the house. She jumped down and strode back to the hut.
Inside she looked at the shelter they’d made. There were bent nails in the dirt. A hammer and a saw lying beside a couple of Playboy magazines and an empty chippie packet. Lily bent to pick up the tools and found some cigarette butts and a packet of matches. She ripped the pages from the magazine and pushed dry scraps of wood into the centre of the hut. Three matches later the pile was ablaze. Lily added more pages from the magazine until the flames were burning steadily. She fed the fire with wood scraps. When the heat made her sweat she picked up her grandfather’s tools and walked away from the hut.
The moment Lily opened the back door, she could hear her parents’ voices; cheerful chatter as if nothing had happened. Lily looked into the laundry. It was empty, no kittens, the bedding removed. Inky must have heard her come in because when Lily turned around she was there, mewing and sniffing in the doorway.
“I’m sorry Inky.”
Lily sat on the lino, leaning against the door. She reached out and pulled the cat to her, trying to make her settle but Inky struggled free and continued searching. The cat circled around the room, into the hallway and back again, trying to find her stolen kittens. Lily remained where she was. She heard the six-thirty television news come on, her mother call out that dinner would be ready soon, and a siren coming closer. _______________________________________________________________________________________ Something to Cry About (first published in The Cortland Review, Issue 75).
When he wanted to see her, he would send a text. Always the same. Are you free this week? She appreciated his approach. It made it easier for her to decline if she didn't feel up to applauding the latest achievements of her siblings or answering questions about her employment status.
Last week it was her birthday. A card and a book voucher arrived in the mail. She felt she ought to say thank you in person so had agreed to meet.
He was sitting by the window when she arrived. He stood up, reaching out one arm for their usual sideways embrace. They didn't meet often but politeness and obligation regularly pulled her back into his orbit.
Once she had tried to shape herself to match a vision she imagined he had. She recalled his pleasure when, at eight years old, she learnt to turn the Gestetner, fold newsletters and stuff envelopes at his work. At ten she had mastered spaghetti Bolognese. It was the year after her mother left and the threat of having to endure more of her father's cooking (frozen meat pie, lumpy mashed potatoes and peas) was her excuse racking up fines for extended borrowing of Good Housekeeping from the local library. Her culinary triumph was a bombe Alaska for their combined birthdays when she turned fourteen and he was thirty-nine. They'd discuss Formula One racing over breakfast and stay up late for the FA Cup final. By her last year of high school she'd watched more than her fair share of sub-titled films and read André Gide and Kafka to enliven their conversations. She had never seen him cry.
"I'll just order a coffee," she says. "Can I get you another? Cake?"
Her tears always flowed too easily, especially during the year when her parents went missing. On the long bus rides from visiting the woman who wore her mother's clothes back to the house with the man who had stolen her father's face she'd rest her head against the window and wonder if her parents would return. Stop that snivelling or I'll give you something to cry about, the words spat from his mouth. She can feel the cold tiles beneath her feet, the sunlight bouncing off the kitchen sink blinding her as she tried to listen then his hand meeting her cheek, a slap in rage at her or her likeness. The shock, the warm urine soaking her jeans, her foot skidding, she fell and regaining her balance ran to her room.
She returns with two plates and their drinks. She hopes he had a pleasant birthday too and enjoyed the pinot.
"Yes, thank you. Sorry you couldn't make it for dinner."
They comment on how unseasonably warm it has been lately. She feels her smile tighten when he segues from the American presidential election to how one half-sibling has got a new job and the other is renovating her house. It took less than five minutes to get there, she hadn't even finished pulling apart her caramel slice. He talks and she nods, writing a 'to do' list in her head. Then, with the same ease, he says he has an appointment next week at the hospital. He has a lump that needs to be checked.
"My doctor thinks it is likely to be nothing major but best to get it looked at properly. Anyway, just keeping everyone in the loop."
"Ok. Let me know how it goes."
She cannot think what else to say. He is so neutral, unfussed, as if he were informing her of his annual appointment with the dental hygienist.
A month later she is sitting at his kitchen table. Half a dozen tiny paint pots line up along the counter beneath stripes of colour exploring a theme in sandy hues. His wife is redecorating. The timing could be better but it was in the pipeline before this.
She stands where her bed used to be and looks out the window to the garden. Her room was swallowed years ago in another renovating project. The Laura Ashley wallpaper she was so excited about long painted over. Would he like her to bring magazines when he starts treatment?
She recalls the perfect solitude she enjoyed when home from school with a cold. She read and slept till she heard the front door unlocking. He'd come home from work to make her lunch. There was a tray with a hard-boiled egg and soldiers, some juice in a tall glass. Just before he went back for the afternoon he would remember the comic in his briefcase. She'd prop herself up and read cover to cover. She wished she could send away for the real mermaid advertised on the back but would they ship one all the way to New Zealand and, even if they did, would it survive such a journey?
"I think I'll postpone my trip to Washington," he says. "I'll go at the end of the year, when this is sorted."
He will start radiation and chemotherapy treatments on Monday. He shows her a schedule of appointments, all the specialists to be consulted.
Of course she will help. She ticks the days that she can do, her hours are flexible and she likes to drive. Rather do that than sit by his bed struggling to make conversation while avoiding mention of the many aspects of her life he finds distasteful.
He explains the pros and cons of a nasal versus stomach feeding tube. The oncologist said he needs to decide now in case he has to move to liquid food at some point during the treatment. But now he is tired, he had exploratory surgery two days ago and the combination of general anaesthetic, biopsy and tonsillectomy has given him a sore throat. A nod to the future then.
She follows him upstairs to his study. From behind he looks like his father, he's even wearing a brown cardigan. Why has she not noticed the shuffle or the hunched shoulders before? She watches him talking, not drinking his tea, the biscuits she put on his plate are left untouched. She looks at the dog who appears to be getting fatter as her father shrinks.
She is about to leave when she feels a tear seep from her left eye. It is so completely unlike them both now that she feigns a sneeze and removes her glasses, swiftly wiping her eyes. He hugs her this time with both arms and there is an unfamiliar gripping before she pulls away. ___________________________________
Milk(first published in Cafe Reader, vol 16) “Trim” the woman mouths to the café worker behind the counter. She hands over her eftpos card and continues her conversation.
“No, I can’t do that, Caitlin will be here in five minutes.” She taps in her pin and waves away the receipt.
“I told you this morning…yes, love you too. Bye.”
The woman walks to a table by the window. She pulls a magazine out of her bag, pink Post-its sprouting from the pages. She smiles, satisfied with the way everything is finally coming together. The coffee arrives and she scoops the chocolate-coated bean through the milky froth, pops it into her mouth and closes her eyes, letting the chocolate melt on her tongue before crunching the bean. She slowly stirs half a teaspoonful of brown sugar into her drink. Sunlight reflects off the gold jewellery on her manicured fingers. She removes her jacket with its uneven, frayed edges, hanging it carefully over the chair beside her. She wipes a strand of auburn hair away from her eyes and looks up as the door opens.
“Caitlin!” the woman calls to a girl hesitating in the doorway.
The girl wears the uniform of her non-uniform school; scuffed Doc Martins, skinny jeans, large black sweater, and a bulging satchel slung over her shoulder. She’s fourteen but tall and heavy black mascara makes it hard to pin down her age. Her light brown hair is pulled into a messy ponytail. She walks across the café, says hello, kisses the woman’s upturned cheek, drops her bag and slumps into the seat opposite. The girl is a paler, fuller version of her mother.
“How are you, darling?” the mother looks at her daughter.
The waitress comes to the table. “What can I get you?” she asks the girl.
“Don’t be silly. Have something. Fruit juice?” the mother suggests.
“Would you like to see the menu?” the waitress asks.
“Umm…can I just have a glass of milk please?” Caitlin looks up at the waitress.
“Of course,” she smiles at the girl.
The mother looks at her daughter, “Why so glum today?”
“Good.” She pushes the magazine across the table. “You need to decide on your dress.”
Caitlin flicks through the pages, finally stopping on one not marked with a Post-it. “That’s quite nice.”
“Really?” The mother thumbs back through the magazine, “I was thinking something… more…. like this.” She stops at the marked page. “You’ll look gorgeous in it.”
“If you’ve already decided, why did you ask me?”
“There’s no need to be like that Caitlin. I want you to feel comfortable but there is a theme so you can’t be wearing something completely different from everyone else. Sally’s quite happy with what we’ve chosen and she’s not making a fuss.”
The waitress delivers a tall glass of milk and a cupcake.
“No, we didn’t order cake,” the woman says.
“End of the day,” the waitress smiles, “it’s on the house.”
“Oh. Thank you. I’ll pay for the milk now,” she hands over a five dollar note.
Low, late afternoon sun shines on the girl’s face. Her cheeks are flushed, making old chicken pox scars faintly visible beneath the surface. She feels her nose start to run. She sniffs.
“For goodness sake, Caitlin.” The mother says sharply and rummages in her handbag for a small tissue packet.
Church bells start to ring. The woman laughs, “Oh! I am sorry, darling but I need to take this.”
“Hello….yes… can you email the menus? We’ll look this evening.”
The waitress returns with the woman’s change on a saucer.
“Thank you,” the girl says.
The woman takes the coins from the saucer and slips them into her purse.
“Terrific. Just signing off the girls’ frocks…Perfect, thanks.” She puts the phone down, and turns back to her daughter, “Well now, everything else ok? How’s school? How was the physics test?”
“I thought it’d be nice if we all had dinner on Friday, so you and Sally can hang out. How’s that sound?”
“She’s really a delight. Very musical too. You don’t mind sharing when she’s in town, do you? You might be able to help her with her science project.” The mother smiles at Caitlin, “It’s not her strong suit.”
Caitlin picks a sugared rose petal off the cake in front of her.
“Well,” the mother continues cheerfully, “I spoke to your father and he’s fine with you staying for the week.” She purses her lips, half smiling “and it’ll give you a break from the baby.”
The daughter stares at the tiny lines around her mother’s mouth where her lipstick is defying gravity, minute rivulets of pearl lustre starting to journey upward.
“Sure,” Caitlin replies.
She thinks maybe now is a good time, while it’s just the two of them. She can’t remember which of her friends her mother has met.
“I was going to go to Kelly’s house for a bit after school on Friday - ”
“Not this week Caitlin. It’s hardly a priority is it? You can do what you like in the second week of the holidays.” She smiles at Caitlin, “I’ll pick you up at 3.30 in front of the gym. We’re going to meet Sally’s flight. On Saturday, I’ll take you both to the dress shop.”
The mother frowns. She can scarcely reconcile the sullen teenager opposite her with the picture she carries in her wallet; Caitlin, six months old, swaddled in a white crocheted blanket. In the photograph she has just left a lipstick kiss on her baby’s cheek and is laughing. She reaches across the table to take Caitlin’s hand, “I’ll miss you when I’m away.”
“Me too.” Caitlin takes her hand back and continues to deconstruct the cupcake. The mother remembers the princess castle cake she made for her daughter’s sixth birthday. The house smelt of sugar and strawberry essence for days. When did the child stop smiling? She really should have insisted on a girls’ school. Still, Caitlin is clever and she will look lovely, even if she is a bit bigger than Sally. Perhaps it would be best to get Caitlin the version with longer sleeves?
She breathes in deeply and smiles, “It’s going to be so much fun having you with us all week. Now, you have to tell me what I can get you. How about some perfume from duty free?”
She reaches for her diary, opens to the notes at the back and on a page with the heading Things to buy on honeymoon adds Caitlin – perfume? Yes, perfume is a lovely present. It will make Caitlin feel special, like a young woman. And when she is back, they’ll go shopping together, just the two of them, make a day of it.
Caitlin’s hand drifts to the middle of her chest, feeling for the locket she always wears. She was given it the day her parents announced they were separating. It holds a picture of her mother at eighteen, staring defiantly at the camera. Caitlin wonders if it was supposed to lessen the blow or was just a reminder; “no matter what, I’m your mother.” She finds herself rubbing it like a talisman, hoping it’ll impart some wisdom or confidence, that it will give a voice to her thoughts. The girl in the photograph would know what to do. What to say if a boy asked her out but she didn’t actually want to go and would rather just hang out with her best friend, she wouldn’t care what anyone said.
“Mum?” Caitlin whispers. She stares at the table. She can hear the words she wants to say but her mouth won’t open. The thing is Kelly’s leaving in two weeks so yes, it is a priority that I see her and I don’t know what I will do without her and have you ever felt like that?
The woman closes her diary and her eyes flick to the watch on her wrist. “Oh, dear, time got away on us didn’t it?” She scoops her phone, diary and the magazine into her bag and reaches for her jacket. “Shall I drop you off?”
“Oh….no, don‘t worry.”
The mother raises her eyebrows.
“I’m fine. I…” the daughter takes a breath, “I’ll just finish - ” she looks at the cupcake broken into pieces on her plate.
"Don’t feel obliged to eat it!” The mother laughs.
Caitlin lifts the corners of her mouth, exposing shiny braces that she knows cost a fortune and isn’t she lucky to get them, some people have terrible teeth and a great smile is a big asset.
“Well, if you’re sure,” the mother says, because she really does need to go now or she’ll get stuck in traffic and Caitlin isn’t exactly chatty. It’s hard to know what would cheer her up these days.
The mother dips down to embrace her daughter; the scent of lilies strikes Caitlin and she grips very tightly until she feels the hug loosen and knows she is supposed to let go.
“Love you.” A peck on the cheek.
And Caitlin thinks yes, I love you too. “See you on Friday,” she says quietly. She watches her mother turn away, retrieve her phone from her bag and start dialling. The door swings shut as the woman leaves the café.
The waitress comes to clear the plates. “The icing was the best part eh?”
“Umm…,” Caitlin pauses, “yeah…thank you.” The waitress glances over her shoulder, there’s no one at the counter, the café’s nearly empty, so she slides into the seat opposite, her large belly pressing up against the table.
“My last day tomorrow. Getting too big for this!” She tilts her head and looks at the girl. “Are you alright?”
“Ah…yeah…” Caitlin swallows and rubs her eyes. Her mascara smudges but the tears that were threatening to flow are held back. She takes a breath and looks at the woman sitting across from her. “When are you due?” _______________________________________________________________________________________ What I Remember (first published in Fresh Ink anthology 2017)
She had an apartment in the city, with a rooftop where her famous friends would sit and drink and laugh.
I was working in a café. She was a regular, grabbing a cappuccino with cinnamon on the way to work or a salad to go for lunch. We started talking the evening she came in to buy dessert and couldn’t decide between meringues or banana cake. She was thin and I was pregnant with you and waiting to get fat.
I set my camera to take a picture of me in my underwear so you’d see how we’d grown together. I made two copies and posted one to my mother. When she got around to replying, she said I looked pale and ought to recolour my hair.
The café wasn’t a bad place to work. At the end of my shift I got to take home any bread that hadn’t sold, as well as the old newspapers. I liked to read the paper on the train home. I was making a scrapbook for you with pictures of interesting events from the year of your birth. There’s Madeline Albright, becoming the first female US Secretary of State, the death of Mother Teresa (and Princess Diana), and a cloned sheep named Dolly. Some of the bread I would save for breakfast, the rest I fed to the ducks in the park on my days off.
The woman with the famous friends told me how much she liked me. She thought I was intriguing so she invited me to dinner at her apartment. She liked to cook and I was always hungry. She had a floor to ceiling bookcase in the front room and she said she’d read everything in it at least once, even though she was super busy. The shelves were jam-packed; Essays on Anarchism lined up next to Annie Leibowitz’s A Photographer’s Life and one full shelf of children’s picture books that were signed by the authors. I’d never seen so many books in one place - outside of a library, that is.
“Really? You’ve never read Proust?”
“I guess I never got round to it.”
“Well.” She scanned the shelves. “Here you are, this is the place to start.”
I stared at a painting of a young man in a sailor suit on the cover of the book.
“You can borrow anything you like,” she said when she caught me eyeing the large stack of Vanity Fair magazines being used as a door-stop. “What could be better than lying in bed on a Sunday morning with a good cup of coffee and an even better magazine?”
I thought about my apartment and how, in the winter, it was often warmer to wrap up and go for a walk than to stay inside, the sun never quite making it over the hill from May till October.
The third time we had dinner together I told her I was pregnant.
“And here I was feeling guilty about slugging back chardonnay while you were being super healthy!”
“Not really. Some days all I eat is buttery toast.”
She smiled at me over her wine glass. “So, you’ve never mentioned a -” She paused.
“Sorry, it’s none of my business. More greens?” She passed the salad.
“Thanks. And no, I mean, it’s fine, it’s just me.”
“I just meant I don’t need to worry about his opinion. He isn’t around, so -”
She was staring at me with her eyebrows raised.
“I know it sounds bad but I always thought I’d have a baby sometime and, well, here I am.”
“You didn’t think about not having it? I mean, being on your own and everything.”
“Yeah, I did. I thought it would be an easy decision to make, the sensible choice but I felt differently. And I realised I could do this.”
“Are you going to tell him? Ever.”
“No.” She continued staring at me across the table. “He won’t even be in the country anymore, he was a tourist. It’s all right, I know his name and a few important details if I, we, ever want to find him.”
My hand settled on my belly where you were discreetly growing. She smiled and offered me more lasagne. It felt good to talk about you, invisible but now well past the three month mark so I guessed you were staying the distance.
One afternoon she stopped at the café on her way home and announced that she was throwing a party for her birthday.
“You will come won’t you?”
We’d had dinner together half a dozen times by then. I liked to listen to her talk about the places she’d been. She’d show me photographs of her smiling in exotic locations. But I wasn’t very good at dinner party conversation. Small talk made me uneasy.
When I was a child I used to go to a lot of events with one or other of my parents. I was the plus one. At twelve years old I had nothing to add to the discussion, so I learned to listen and watch.
“She’s so mature, I love the way she soaks everything up,” I’d hear my parents’ friends comment.
I had probably spent half the evening doing long division in my head and the rest of the time working out who was having an affair with whom, judging by the lingering hands when passing the gravy or the chablis. I stopped accompanying my mother to parties when my trance-like smile was misinterpreted and one of the guests cornered me on my way to the bathroom.
“Pleeease. Come early and help? It can be my present,” she said.
The guests filed through the open-plan kitchen on their way to the rooftop. They piled presents on the bench and collected glasses of sangria, loudly delighting in each other’s company.
I was adding the finishing touches to a large chocolate cake, which she’d made and I was charged with decorating. I alternated dried rose buds and silver cachous, spiralling them into the centre. The cake required my concentration and allowed me to delay joining the group until she rang the Tibetan prayer bell she used to announce that dinner was served.
Upstairs they crowded around a long table. Half of them picked at their food like fussy children while the rest ate with gusto, their cutlery stabbing punctuation in the monologues and complaints.
“It’s such a fucking village!”
“You should try New York. Amazing. So vital.”
“I was in Berlin last summer, now they know how to treat artists.”
“So, what do you do?” a woman with bright red hair and large green-rimmed glasses enquired.
“I work in the café opposite the library,” I said.
“Right. But - What. Do. You. Do?” she enunciated slowly.
I thought about the tables I set and cleared and the food I delivered to café patrons. I thought about the flutterings coming from you - hidden deep inside me and I opened my mouth to say but she had already turned her attention to the man next to her.
I hadn’t mentioned being pregnant when I got the job in the café. I probably should’ve said something but I just nodded when the boss said he thought I ought to lay off the cakes. I stayed until he finally twigged on. Jesus, he said, you’re having a baby. And he said it wasn’t right, would put people off, make them feel guilty if a pregnant woman brought them their lunch. Like they ought to get up and offer to help carry the plates. I was getting too fat to squeeze between the tables with eggs bene and pancakes for the Saturday brunch crowd anyway. I took my tips at the end of the shift, the few notes and coins tucked into my purse. The chef gave me the uncooked bread dough wrapped in cling film and drew a smiley face on the plastic.
“A dough baby,” he laughed. “Come and see us when yours arrives.”
She rang on Monday morning, as soon as she got to work. Why hadn’t I called her on Saturday? It was awful. What was I going to do? Your existence was undeniable now and finding another café job was going to be tricky. She rang back after lunch. She had the solution. I could have her spare room. It made perfect sense.
The day I moved in we ate boiled eggs sitting at the kitchen bench while she read aloud from The Oxford Dictionary of Saints.
“Let’s find an extraordinary name for – her? Or him!” She laughed.
I said I’d find a place of my own soon, somewhere cheaper than the old apartment but thanks, it was good to have somewhere to be while I looked. She said there was no rush. She enjoyed the company, she said, but if it made me feel better, I could dust the bookshelves occasionally and help out when she held dinner parties. She said the cake I'd made for her birthday had been a hit. So, that was our arrangement.
I’d wake in the night, sometimes, with her arms around me.
“Do you mind? I had a nightmare.”
At 3am I didn’t mind. Her arms were warm and it felt good to be held. In the morning I’d be alone in my bed. She’d be reading the paper in the kitchen, the windows open, sunshine filling the apartment.
“I should really get settled into a place of my own.”
“Sure. Can I get you a cup of something?”
“If I don’t find somewhere before the baby is born then I think it’ll be harder after.”
She placed a cup and saucer in front of me; the lightest eggshell blue with cream trim.
I sipped the tea and she smiled. “Totally up to you, of course, but you’re welcome to stay. I always thought I preferred having the place to myself, but I’ve got used to sharing with you – you’re a good flatmate!”
“It’ll be different with a baby. Noisy.”
“Yeah, I guess so. But I’ll still be at work during the day and - ”, she paused, “I can pretend I’m an aunt. I don’t know, you’d be doing me a favour.”
Six weeks later you were born and she was there. She held my hand then went out and bought you a bear and a blanket.
When the midwife passed you to me, I was amazed. Not flood-of-love amazement or euphoria. Just amazement. You were not what I expected because I had no idea what to expect. You were extraordinary. The singular separateness of you. I did not know you and yet you had grown inside me. Your fists were bunched and your eyes closed tightly against the glare of hospital lights. You cried, but not so much. You found my breast and latched on quickly, tugging, sucking until there was movement, pins and needles beneath my skin and flow from my body into yours.
When it was time to go home we went back to her apartment. The first days were a blur of feeding and nappies and short bursts of deep, deep sleep. If it was warm, you and I would sit on the rooftop, watching the seagulls and dozing together. Weeks passed uncounted. A few new pictures made their way into your book and a paragraph describing your speedy arrival.
On the second Saturday after your birth I woke to find your cot was empty. Everything was still and quiet and she was in the kitchen holding you.
“You looked tired.” She kissed your cheeks and said, “What a sleepy head your mummy is!”
There weren’t any parties now. I thought she’d mind and that maybe we should move.
“But I love having you here. And you know I think she understands who I am. When she was born she looked directly into my eyes, before they handed her to you. There was a moment.” She blew a raspberry on your stomach. And you laughed.
A few weeks later she told me how special it was having us live with her. How her father had died when she was sixteen and now she felt like she had a family again. She held my hands and said what a great and special friend I was and I didn’t have to leave.
I looked at you lying on your back staring at dust mites dancing in the sunshine.
There were days when you and I would lie on the floor together and I would tell you the names of everything in the room and you would stare and stare and then laugh suddenly when the wind made the curtains float and your mobile spin. There were days when you would fall asleep sucking on a breast that was empty, deflated. When my body could barely feed you and you would cry yourself to sleep. My eyes would close as yours did and we’d lie there on the floor, wrapped in a blanket and all I wanted was to sleep and sleep and sleep. I’d wake to you wriggling and reaching for me, again. I would leave you lying on the floor. Ravenous, I’d consume half a loaf of bread and force myself to drink the concoction she’d left for me. “Tiger’s milk in the fridge. Drink up. It’s good for your milk supply.” Her notes were written in pink highlighter and propped up against the kettle.
She stood there not smelling of stale milk and nappies. She wore a crisp linen dress, ready for work. She planted a kiss on your cheek.
“Are you still reading the books by your bed?”
“Sorry, I …”
“No problem, just put them back if you don’t like them.” She tickled your feet and smiled, “I thought Mummy might read some books when she’s got nothing to do.”
She turned from you and brushed the hair away from my face. “Sweetheart, you really do look exhausted. See you tonight.”
The following Saturday, she was tucking you into the pram when I got up.
“You should have the morning off. Look at some magazines in bed,” she said. “I’ll take her to the park.”
I had been up twice in the night to feed you.
“Maybe just half an hour, then I’ll be fine. Thank you.”
Soon I would get dressed and join you both in the park. It was very dark in my room, I lay down and pulled the duvet up to my chin. It was good to sleep, until I woke because my breasts were leaking and the wetness had seeped through my t-shirt and was soaking the sheets. I got up and stripped the bed. Then I noticed dust in the corners of the room and that, in fact, the whole apartment needed a thorough clean. That was the arrangement, and I hadn’t done much lately. I ought to make sure everything was clean for you. I was still cleaning three hours later when she returned. Yes, time had got away on me but the apartment was looking so much better and I was ready for you now.
“We were both tired so I stopped at your old café. They were really pleased to see her.
I hope you don’t mind but she was hungry, so I gave her a bottle. She didn’t mind at all.”
You were sleeping contentedly in her arms.
“Put the kettle on will you? I’ll pop her into bed then we can have a cup of tea,” she said. “I got you something,” she called over her shoulder. “It’s in the bag. They said it was easy enough to use. I thought it would be good, so you’re not tied to her so much, give you a break. And we can top her up if needs be.”
I looked into the bag; A “Comfort Breast Pump”, a tin of infant formula and a couple of bottles. I heard her singing to you and the air was sucked from my lungs, my blood pumping too fast, heat surging to the tips of my fingers. A groan slipped from my lips as I tried to breathe. I flicked my hands away from my body clipping the vase on the bench and watched as it hit the kitchen tiles. Green glass, water and peonies at my feet. Oxygen flooded my lungs and two mugs slid off the bench. They didn’t break, just bounced off the tiles, dregs of tea splattering up the wall. My hands grabbed at white dinner plates that shattered as they collided in the air, raining shards of china on the floor.
“What are you doing?” she shrieked.
I turned at her voice, knocking the photo of us into the watery glass and china mess. Her arms around my neck, pulling my face close to hers - smile she had said, holding her phone out to capture us, her grip on me tight and the angle ensuring we were all eyes and teeth, mouths gaping.
“For fuck’s sake! What is wrong with you?”
She grabbed my shoulders and shook me so my head wobbled like a nodding dog on a car dashboard. We looked rather funny I was sure; the chaos in the room and me with Jif and milk stains on my t-shirt and her in a summer frock, her face all pinched and red with rage, staring at each other.
“I’m - sorry? I’ll clean it up.” I smiled apologetically.
“Just get out!” She pushed past me and opened the door. “Go.”
Everything was still and quiet in the kitchen. You hadn’t woken; inner-city living had inured you to loud noises.
I stood outside the door, uncertain what to do. I was a mess, I had no cash on me and it was all kind of silly really. I went upstairs to the roof and lay down on the warm concrete. I closed my eyes. I was on the verge of sleep but milk was dripping from my breasts, cooling as it settled on my skin. How long was long enough to stay up here? I should go down and use the damned pump at least. I knocked on the door like a visitor, waiting for her to open it. She didn’t but it was unlocked so I let myself in. Everything had been cleaned up. On the table the pump was waiting for my return. I assembled the contraption, attached myself to it and watched as milk flowed with each tug, first one side then the other. I put the bottles in the fridge.
I stood in the hallway between her room and ours listening. Silence. I showered then dressed quietly. You were flat on your back, still sleeping. I went out, returning with a box of four white plates, a vase and a bunch of lilies. I made tea and gently pushed open her bedroom door.
“I’m sorry. Cup of tea?” I put a tray beside the bed and she rolled over staring at me, saying nothing. “I’m very sorry.”
“Yes, sure. It’s ok.” She looked at me a moment longer then sighed and shook her head slightly. “I called you mother,” she said.
“Well,” she sat up now and took my hands in hers, “we think you might need a break.” Her cool fingers stroked my cheek, “what you need is rest.”
My mother agreed. She said I had really let myself go. If I went home with her she would look after me. They’d been talking and thought it would be better if you stayed in the apartment. A familiar environment, they said. You really needed routine. My mother insisted. Said she’d have enough on her plate getting me back on my feet and really, we weren’t much good with babies, maybe it was in the blood. My mother said they’d decided it was best this way and I was lucky to have such a lovely friend who had taken care of everything. And you were very peaceful, quite the contented little bundle.
It was quiet in my mother’s house. She put me in her spare room with a blue hydrangea bush outside the window. I slept for two days when I first arrived and by the seventh morning my milk was gone. Mother was very busy with her garden, her friends and filling her pantry with row upon row of preserves but she made sure I took my medicine so that I would be feeling better soon. In the afternoons, I took the newspaper to the living room and lay on the floor, cutting out photographs for the Book of Events.
On Thursdays Mother liked us to go on an outing. She thought the fresh air would be good for me. Sometimes I didn’t want to go so I’d say I was too tired. But if she said it was to the Begonia House I was always ready first and waiting in the hallway. I would take your book and draw pictures of the flowers and the fish. I would say their names out loud, trying to remember the Latin to tell you later. Mother told me to be quiet because I was being too noisy. Then I sat on the edge of the pond and watched the goldfish. There was a little girl playing in the water, laughing. She said the fish were tickling her toes. I wanted to tell her that the fish were eating the dead skin on her feet because I had read that in the encyclopaedia but when I reached towards her, her mother called her away. The mother said it was time to go and then she spoke so quietly I couldn’t hear what she said but the little girl looked over her shoulder at me and she looked frightened. I thought I should tell her mother about the fish because I don’t think she knew so I stood up and your book fell from my lap and I had to get into the pond to retrieve it but the park manager was angry and he shouted, what do you think you’re doing? My mother went red and I heard her saying sorry and not well and it won’t happen again and yes we are just leaving.
We drove nearly all the way home in silence. We had turned into our street when Mother said, in the clipped voice she uses when she is cross but trying not to show it, “that book will have to be thrown out now, it is all wet and ruined.” It was not ruined and I know that you will like it when you get it and that is why I am working on it every day now. But Mother tried to take the book. She was going to fling it out the window and I had to stop her. It wasn’t my fault but she shouldn’t have grabbed it. I only pushed her to stop her from stealing it and she should have kept her eyes on the road so it really wasn’t my fault.
Today, I told them that I am feeling much better. I have nearly filled all the pages of your book and soon I will ask them to send it to you. For your birthday. ___________________________________________________________________________________