Mum was sprawled in a peace sign on the living room carpet, the sun casting light between the spokes of her arms and legs.
“I have something to say,” I said.
“What’s that?” she asked, raising her head slightly.
“I don’t want to tell you.”
“OK.” She smiled, resting her head back down on the loop pile carpet.
“I need to tell you though.” I don’t know with what compulsion I needed to tell her. She pressed her legs together, becoming an exclamation mark.
“I have a pair of Skechers under my bed.” I looked past her to the wall and its many frames.
“Your cousin’s shoes?” she asked. I nodded. “How did they get there?”
“I put them there when I got home from her house.” I couldn’t explain the movement of the shoes from my cousin’s wardrobe to my bag to my bedroom, not even to myself.
“I see. Those awful purple things?” I saw her grin. Sitting up, she rested her chin on her knees, the bottom of her pink-painted toes stroking the carpet. “Well, it’s not a good idea to take things that aren’t yours.” That was a rule that wasn’t really a rule but it was widely accepted by most people, most of the time. Another rule was that she wouldn’t ask me if I took anything else. Of course, this wasn’t a spoken rule. Rules of this kind tend not to be.
“I was once accused of stealing my teacher’s purse,” she told me. “I was probably your age, halfway through high school. It was awful, the teacher yelled at me in front of the entire class, I went scarlet red and then the principal yelled at me and I was told to think about what I had done, which was nothing.” She put her hand on my knee and smiled. “Whether these things happen or not—if you actually do make a mistake—it doesn’t mean that you are a certain kind of person.” She had always given me the impression that I could be trusted—it was as though she saw good in me even when I couldn’t.
She stood up, walked toward the open door and disappeared down the hallway. Somewhere inside me grew heavy. The weight of it, sinking. I followed her into her bedroom and found her spitting saliva that was light green and bubbly into the sink in her bathroom. “Reflux,” she said as she knocked back a small white pill with a glass of water.
“The way you just gulped your Losec reminds me of Ross almost drinking the fat in the Thanksgiving episode,” I told her.
“But in my case, I actually swallowed it,” she said. I knew she wasn’t really thinking about Ross from Friends. She went to her wardrobe, then turned around with a small department store bag dangling from her left hand, one of those glossy square things made from card with ribbon handles. “I bought you this,” she said, handing me the bag. I felt myself inhale. Tissue paper was tightly bound into a small square. It rustled between my fingers. I pulled the fragile parcel out and unwrapped the tissue. A small cream-coloured underwire bra similar to the ones I’d seen girls wearing in the changing shed at school fell onto my lap. It was covered with tiny pink and green rosettes. My throat constricted.
“Lydie reminded me that I haven’t yet bought you your first proper bra. You’ve been putting up with those contour thingies for too long.” My mouth filled with saliva. Girls from my year had been wearing underwires since the start of high school, yet my chest had only slightly raised, budding and sore. “I’m sorry, I don’t like that I’ve been less engaged. I’ve dropped the ball, stopped asking you about your day, what you’re thinking. It’s important to ask others questions...” She looked behind me. I knew that wall was bare. Looking back, she said, “There’s a challenge in that for me. What I’m saying is that I’ve been...it’s been busy.”
“You mean Dad?” I said. She nodded. It had been months since Mum had called Lydie and me into her room to show us Dad’s call history statement. The wad of paper displaying line after line of the same number that turned out to belong to a woman none of us had met. Lydie and I finally understood why the house had become so quiet.
“That’s OK,” I said. Smiling, I looked out the window at Lydie dribbling a ball in front of our garage with a bunch of her new university friends. Her breasts bounced up and down like two heavy yo-yos despite the wire that supported them. It was the first time I didn’t feel jealous of those breasts.
“I hope it fits, but we can easily exchange it if it doesn’t.” She squeezed my knee. “I love you, darling,” she said and she wrapped her tiny arm around my body.
There was the faintest sound of bare feet bouncing on carpet. Lydie was standing in the doorway. I pushed the glossy bag under my thigh.
“Hannah puked in the hallway,” Lydie said. “Beige chunks and mucus are all over the carpet.”
“Thanks for that image,” Mum told her.
“I said yesterday that we needed to take her to the vet.”
“It was Sunday.” Mum stood up and left the room. From the hallway came, “We’ll need to take her now.”
Light blue linoleum covered the vet’s waiting room floor. Tiny squares stamped its surface as though the heel of a clog had pressed into the pine resin and ground cork. “Your father should be doing this,” Mum said. A breath of air slowly passed through her parted lips.
That’s when I noticed the pile of Teen Vogues on the coffee table. “I’ll wait here.”
Lydie looked at Hannah and then at me, her brows furrowing. Dad had initially bought the dog when I started school, Lydie would have been in Year Three by then. During the weekdays when Dad would arrive home, Hannah would bark and the dog and I would meet him at the top of the driveway, smiling and expectant. I hadn’t felt close to Hannah since Dad left.
“This way,” the nurse said, pointing toward the fluorescent corridor.
I stayed put with the magazines. I don’t know why I did it—they were all from 2013, not a recent edition from the previous two years amongst the lot.
After dinner that night, Lydie tapped a knock, knock, knock against the honey oak joinery of my bedroom door. It was all over the house—the joinery I mean—but also the knocking; a dull thud that began deep in my eardrums that first night Dad slept away from home.
“Come in,” I said and Lydie sat on the bed.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. I started to cry. “I had no idea they’d have to put her down,” she told me.
“It’s not that,” I said.
“Is it Dad?” she asked.
“I took $20 from Mum’s wallet last week,” I told her.
“Oh,” she said and she crouched down to hug me.
“Don’t tell Mum.”
“I won’t,” she said, “I’ll tell Dad.” And we were laughing. It felt like breathing.
“What did you learn at school today?” Mum handed me a pink marshmallow from the other side of the kitchen island, icing sugar coating her fingers like snow. I was thinking about the bowl of pink marshmallows that she gave me when she first told me about sex—the sweetness had offset the trauma.
“The way you just handed me this reminds me of Aladdin at the mouth of the cave when he was about to relinquish the lamp,” I said. She smiled and withdrew her hand toward her chest as though she was snatching something away from me, something that could never be replaced. The sleeve of her sweater gathered at the elbow like a scrunchie.
“Today we learned how to brew ginger beer,” I said. Miss Diver had told us that fermented beverages were good for your stool, it had something to do with the probiotics. “It makes you regular,” I told Mum.
Outside, the last of the winter wind flung leaves in circles around the terracotta pavers. She turned the heat pump on and asked, “Are you irregular?” I told her that I didn’t want to discuss my bowel movements.
Mum laughed and said, “That doesn’t make me upset, but I do need to know if something is wrong.”
She nodded. Nothing was important, the things we were saying.
That evening I stood in my bedroom and squatted like Mum had told me they did in rural China. She said that women there line up in rows hovering over a narrow trench, that if you looked down between your knees all you could see was other people’s shit floating by. It was worse for the person hovering directly above the drain; not one person’s excrement escaped the privilege of their nostrils. As I was squatting, I looked between my knees at the woollen carpet in anticipation. It is easy to manufacture a shit when the anal sphincter is ready and primed but when the colon has done its rounds, sheer determination is not always adequate. I took a breath and clenched my fists, my thumbs pressed my fingers into a ball and my anus felt like it was about to turn in on itself, to roll up like the opening of a balloon. Sweat broke out on my forehead and under my armpits. A little urine dribbled onto the carpet.
Then there it was; a hard, round pellet about the size of a bliss ball. It sat utterly alone and on an angle where the carpet had been badly worn.
There wasn’t a single thought in my mind as I walked up the hallway toward the lounge in my baby-blue flannel pyjamas. Mum was reclined on the grey sofa to watch old episodes of Shortland Street at low volume. I knelt beside her. “Mum, I pooed on the carpet,” I told her.
She drew her eyes away from the screen and said, “What?”
I said, “I pooed on the carpet.”
I couldn’t explain the impulse to myself but the unintended consequence was a feeling I now recognise as renewed faith in humanity—the ability to succeed in the least likely conditions. There would be something in that for me—I was pretty sure of it.
She turned back toward the screen where Chris Warner and Rachel McKenna were mid-fight again, something about one of the other doctors at work. Mum was squinting in the direction of the screen as though visual concentration could enhance one’s sense of hearing.
She said, “That’s OK. Clean it up with a flannel, darling.” She was smiling, as though there was nothing I could do that would surprise her. I don’t know why, but it felt like I was home again.
My father stood outside the green wooden door of our family home. I knew he was there, moments earlier I had heard the “du-doof” click of his Mercedes followed by several seconds of September rain clinking against his mustard parka. How many six o’clock evenings over my entire life had I heard that same sequence of events? Dad coming home from work for dinner. Me meeting him outside near the rose bushes, Hannah at my heels. However, it was 3.30pm on a Wednesday. I stayed indoors.
Mum and Lydie were snuggled up on our linen couches watching reruns of Home and Away while soup simmered in the kitchen. I could imagine the mug of pearl tea held snuggly in Mum’s left hand, her orchid lipstick dry and forgotten at the corners of her mouth like pink sand.
An inhospitable draft poured in through my open window and out from under the floral curtains. I’d left my window ajar, loathing warm air. If I had peered behind the pink fabric, I would have been able to see him standing there, staring at the Farrow & Ball coloured paint for which he’d fought so hard when he and Mum had renovated eight years earlier. The house stood at the very top of a mountain-shaped street, once surrounded by farmland and proudly quoted by my father as having been the neighbouring house of the Cornwall Park estate back in the 1800s. In the early 80s, my parents had bought it for $45,000—all their life savings—with the intention of making a family home. They had relished their weekends trawling through second-hand shops and antique fairs, collecting items to cover the walls, fill the rooms.
Dad’s most prized treasure had been a blue wooden side table, shaped like a train. Lydie and I called it Thomas because the top was a lid with a funnel for the handle. It was just one of the many items that were now gone. Most of Dad’s stuff had been cleared out, stored in boxes in our garage. Mum had called him several months ago to say that he could pick them up from there but that he couldn’t come inside. Then she’d coughed. She wasn’t even sick. It was so out of place.
I walked over toward the curtain of flowers that hid me. Silence. Not even the shuffle of a boot, the shrugging of water off his shoulders. What about the doorbell? I hoped he wouldn’t press the golden button with his thick tanned finger like a door-to-door salesman. Maybe instead he would use his knuckles against the oak. Lydie would have said, “Who would knock on our door? No one knocks on our door.” I waited for him to place his key in the lock, roll the cog away from the doorframe and turn the matching golden handle.
Ding ding ding. The doorbell resounded throughout the entire house. The murmur from the TV room halted and was replaced with the light thump of feet down our carpeted hallway, the heavy door creaking open. I felt winded just hearing it all.
“What are you doing here?” I heard a teacup tap down on the rimu sideboard.
“Sorry, I just came to as—”
“Came to ask the girls a question,” Dad said with more volume.
“They have cell phones. Your children have cell phones. Text them,” Mum told him.
Then there was a long pause. The rain pattered down on the weatherboard veranda. A truck must have driven through a puddle out on the road—the splash echoed around our house. One of them sighed, a long sad sigh, reserving just enough air to breathe again.
Finally, Mum said, “You must be freezing.”
“I’m fine, thank you.”
“Dad?” I hadn’t heard Lydie walk past my bedroom.
I should have made an appearance, opened my door, stood with my family on the antique Chinese rug.
“Hi Lydia,” Dad said. “Is your sister out?”
Footsteps approached my room. I stepped backward. The door opened and there was Lydie.
She whispered, “Don’t think you’re getting out of this easily.” I followed her into the foyer.
“Hi sweetie,” he said.
“I wanted to ask whether you girls would like to come to the Katy Perry concert with me for your birthday, Dolores?” He was looking at me. “I already bought three tickets, but it’s up to you.”
“Three tickets?” Mum looked around at each of us, then dropped her gaze to the silk rug lined by our eight feet, as though the lines and patterns would help her understand this new math that described our family.
Lydie wasn’t impartial to a Katy Perry concert, so she raised her eyebrows in false hope. “Not a fan,” was all she said in reply. Then she turned around and retraced her steps back up the long hallway toward the wafting scent of creamed pumpkin. My stomach gurgled.
Dad looked at me. He shrugged, his shoulders sitting lower than they had moments earlier. I hated when he did that. “Would you like to come?”
Mum’s gaze rested on the space Lydie had been occupying. She lifted herself slightly, puffing out her chin and chest.
“I—I’m not sure I’m available,” I said, looking at her.
“You don’t know which night it is,” she said.
Dad said, “No one said anything about a night.” We both looked at him.
“Is it a day concert, then?” Mum’s eyebrows were raised, her forehead furrowed.
“It’s at five o’clock on your birthday, Lola. Saturday, right?”
“Oh, well she’s busy on her actual birthday. We have her friends coming over, sorry.”
He nodded. “OK then, not to worry. Enjoy your birthday, sweetie.” He smiled and gave me the thumbs up, then turned to leave, closing the door behind him.
Our house with its silence, its all-girls locker room smell. Lydie with her steadfast loyalty to Mum. Mum with her head full of questions. Then there was me, who I hardly knew anymore.
A misshapen bite of avocado toast lay on a plate in front of me. Tiny hairs from the carpet peppered its surface from when it fell facedown moments earlier. Lydie’s plate was empty but I had been busy watching a cheesy telenovela on mute. The man on screen had coiffed dark hair, his shirt was open and his eyebrows danced up and down during his entire speech. A woman in a white dress stood across from him, wind blowing at their clothes and hair. These are the things my father wouldn’t have allowed; all this display of emotion, time wasted in front of the TV. I don’t believe parents think about these things when they separate—that their kids’ childhoods become lost, taking on an entirely different form, usually with fewer demarcations, less defence. I took a bite and turned on the sound. “It is better never to have loved, than to have loved and lost,” the man said.
I scoffed. Saliva struck the back of my throat. The original poem had featured in my English exam the year before and this actor had got it wrong.
Mum laughed. I turned and saw her standing in the doorway. “A satire of Tennyson,” she said. I felt a burst of shame—I hadn’t recognised that the actor was being intentional. Tennyson had been the first poet Mum taught when she became a high school teacher. She had spent her early twenties writing poems to the rhythm of his prose in a homemade hessian notebook. They had been an expression of all the things she couldn’t make sense of. The poems stopped a couple of years before she married Dad, she’d told us.
“Hi,” I said.
“But that version is the only way you will ever understand your father,” she told us. I wanted to ask if Dad felt sad about leaving us but I couldn’t find the words.
“I have netball,” Lydie said, standing up. “Is it OK?”
“Is what OK?” Mum raised her eyebrows.
“That I go. That we go to school today. You seem—sad.”
“Very funny. I’m fine.” She grinned.
Lydie rolled her eyes, throwing her backpack over her shoulder.
After she had left through the front door, Mum sat down on the worn couch, her nightie slipping up her freckled thigh. I was wondering how I was going to bring up the Teen Vogues when she said, “The way that you haven’t yet told your cousin about her Skechers doesn’t sit well with me.”
“I took some magazines from the vet on Monday. They’re under my bed,” I told her.
She sighed an enormous amount of air. I felt a draught against my face and strands of hair tickle my ears. She looked at the chair my father used to sit in. “Why do you think you are taking things that aren’t yours?”
“I don’t know.”
The throw rug was pulled over her thighs as she turned to face me. She looked like she was about to blow a piece of bubble gum, her breath all tucked up under her lips instead of in her mouth. “I have always believed that offering the truth is more important than offering a false sense of security,” she said, as she wriggled her toes under the woven fabric.
I thought she was asking me to be honest about everything. “I kissed Marion,” I told her.
“Marion from school?”
“No, the other Marion. Yes, the only one we know.”
“You know, you don’t need to confess everything to me. At your age, I was kissing everyone. It’s a curious time.”
“At camp,” I whispered.
She smiled and stroked her throat where I imagined the acid was burning her oesophagus.
Lydie reappeared at the front door, reaching for her drink bottle that sat on the kitchen bench and said, “So you told her about the $20.”
“What $20?” Mum asked.
I held my breath. Lydie’s eyes widened. “Miss Diver is taking us to a brewery and the tour costs $20, can I go?” I asked, in awe of my ability to improvise.
“Did she give you a permission slip?”
I nodded. “Left it at school.” Lydie put her finger in the air beside her cheek.
“OK, bring it home tomorrow, ma chérie,” Mum said.
“OK,” I said.
“A brewery,” Mum repeated.
And I felt the weight of it all—the $20, the Skechers, Jessica’s red stilettos on the cover of Teen Vogue—but most of all, that I had become a certain kind of person since Dad left. A person I didn’t recognise at all.
Mum handed me a blank journal. “Write the stories of your life.” We were sitting at one of the tables outside a cafe in Wynyard Quarter waiting for an early dinner.
I laughed. We were usually never this serious. “They’re not all that great,” I told her.
“I’m serious, you’ve got a lot to process, this might help frame your thoughts.”
“Is this one of those ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ moments?”
“You could think of it like that if it helps but that hadn’t crossed my mind at all,” she said.
“Do you write a journal?” I asked.
“I have enough journals to fuel the fire that could burn down our entire house.”
“Wow.” Sometimes when I looked at her I couldn’t imagine being alive without her. She was the person from whom I got my bearings, and why I was able to move and speak and live each day. She waved the journal in front of my face so I would take it from her. “The way you just handed me this reminds me of when you gave us green barley powder as kids.”
She said, “Gosh, you remind me of myself at your age.”
“Hang on, you mean I have a lot to process about Dad and stuff, right?” I asked.
She pointed to her throat. She waved her hand up and down in front of her face as though she were fanning away tears. The glare made my eyes close. The waiter came over to our table. He told me that they had run out of fries, that I would need to choose something else to accompany my poisson du jour! He said it exactly like that—an exciting announcement.
“Turns out it’s not just reflux,” she said quietly. I remembered the green bubbly stuff in her bathroom sink. How it clung to the porcelain, stagnant and stubborn. “Apparently there’s a small tumour here.”
Time passed, a different waiter came over and placed an alternative side dish in front of me. “Dauphinoise potatoes,” she said, except that there was no cream or cheese on top of them. Instead, they had been boiled in a broth and covered with parsley.
“Excuse me,” I said, “This is not dauphinoise potatoes.” As a child, Mum’s housekeeper had made the dish constantly. We inherited the particular recipe, which Mum had fully incorporated into her regular cooking. “These are just boiled potatoes—look,” I said, pointing at the spuds.
“Er, I’ll check with the chef.” She attempted to remove the dish from the table.
“Don’t bother,” I told her.
“Darling,” Mum said.
I tried to close my mouth, but it oozed out of me. “It would break my heart if you failed twice.” My throat constricted. The waiter backed away from our table. I felt a meanness fill me then, spilling into my blood, permeating my organs. I spooned the boiled potatoes onto my plate then pushed the rest away.
“You’re going to find this the hardest, darling.”
The budding leaves on the spring trees beside us lifted in the wind. It looked like they were hoisting their skirts.
Mum stroked her throat. One of the waiters approached our table. “Are the potatoes OK?” Mum adjusted the napkin on her lap and nodded. “Would you like to swap them for something else?” he asked me. I shook my head. “Really, it’s no trouble,” he said.
“My oncologist didn’t want to tell me exactly how long I had but I pressed him and he finally admitted that we would have a good amount of time. A couple of years even.” A couple of years. I pulled at the underwire of my new bra that had been creeping up and over my lower breast tissue. The waiter put his pad in his apron pocket and backed away again.
“Does Lydie know?”
“I told her earlier today between her lectures. We had lunch on campus—by the way, have you returned your cousin’s shoes yet? The purple ones?”
I watched her then and didn’t speak for a few minutes. “They’re fucking shoes, Mum!” Breath caught in my throat. “Who even cares about that?” I called the waiter back.
“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.
“Yes, do you have marshmallows?”
He looked across the restaurant. “Um, well, we don’t sell them separately.”
“But do you have them in the restaurant, like what if a kid orders a hot chocolate—don’t they come with hot chocolates?” He rearranged the pad sticking out of his pocket. It almost passed as a rearrangement of his junk.
“Well, yes, they do,” he said.
“Right, well, can I just have the marshmallows then? Only pink ones, please.” He looked at a woman standing by the bar with a nose ring.
“I’ll have to ask my manager,” he said, retracing his steps to the bar.
“What about all the things you said you wanted to do?” I asked her. She nodded, then took a sip from her hot chocolate and reshuffled the handbag on the chair beside her. The setting sun on the harbour illuminated Mum from behind, surrounding her like an enormous incandescent blue rubber wig. I thought about all the things I wanted to say to her, that they were boring and predictable. I thought about how I should touch her but there was no obvious way to do that.
“There you go.” The waiter placed a mug of marshmallows in front of me. “Just this once,” he said. And he winked.
Lydie winked at me once, when we were eight and 11 in our mother’s garden. We were riding our pink and purple BMX bikes around and around the lemon tree in our front yard, pretending it was a roundabout and we were on our way to pick up our kids from school. That’s when Lydie winked, as she pushed her French-tip polished toenails around the pedals. I flicked my pretend-indicator to the right and my bike turned into a faux side street. I stopped, got off and stepped naked toes through the lawn towards a slumped teddy bear. After I’d dusted dry grass off his backside and kissed him on the cheek, I took him back to my bike. With a blue ribbon securing him to the handlebars, I rode to the other corner of the yard where we’d set up our makeshift supermarket of canned goods and overly ripened fruit. By then Lydie was gone—probably at a friend’s house down the street.
“How was your day?” I asked my teddy.
“I’m glad to hear,” I told him.
“We need to go to the supermarket before we head home.”
“Don’t speak to your mother like that, darling.”
“Yes, we can bake banana bread this afternoon.”
I parked the bicycle beside a can of cannellini beans, pressing the bike stand into the grass. My teddy and I waded through the pile of cans until we found Wattie’s Spaghetti with Sausages. I paid for the can with two brown leaves, then rode back towards the lemon tree and all the way home.
That was all motherhood had meant to me.