Kelly Palmer (Queensland University of Technology, Australia)
Toilet paper: three fifty-five. Shampoo and conditioner? Too expensive. Get the two-in-one. Spaghetti: eighty-nine cents. Get a couple of those. Frozen nuggets: five bucks. Pack of iceblocks: three bucks. Cat biscuits: three bucks. Damn cat eats better than I do. Mangy thing. Shits on the carpet and leaves headless magpies on the lawn. Milk and bread, and then that’s it.
I put my basket on the belt of the nearest checkout. The girl doesn’t smile, or look up much. Must hate her job. Wait until she has two kids. That’s a job. When she finishes scanning everything. she says, ‘That comes to twenty-two sixty.’
‘That’s not right,’ I say, recounting the items. ‘Should be under twenty.’
‘Was something on special?’
‘Some specials you can only get with the rewards card.’
Fine. But I’m paying in two-dollar coins.
I pick up my bags and leave the line of angry women behind me. They’re watching me leave. I can feel it. They’re rolling their eyes. Must be nice for them to have someone to look down on. Makes them feel better about going home to their fat husbands.
When I step into the toy store, I head straight to the lay-by counter, where the fluorescents aren’t so white.
I hold my receipt out to a bearded man behind the counter. ‘Can I put thirty bucks down on the house?’
He takes my notes.
‘No problem,’ he says.
He fiddles with the computer. He hasn’t lifted his head up for a while.
‘What does that bring it to?’ I ask.
‘You’ve paid one hundred out of one fifty.’
‘Does that include the thirty?’
‘Yeah. So you’ve got fifty left.’
That’s not bad. There’ll be money in the bank in a few days.
I’m heading towards the exit when I see it on display—the dollhouse that Sammy will love. The pink plastic would be as high as the kitchen bench. One half of the house pulls away so that she could place her Barbies inside. It has a bedroom and a spa. No kitchen. I would have loved to own something like this. It’d be more fun than videotapes tacked together and washcloth beds, even though Sammy promises that what she has is good enough. She asked me if we’ll ever live in a house like it. Like this? Made of videotapes? With Sesame Street reels in the walls? I had asked her back. She had laughed at me. Thank god she didn’t wait for a real answer. But fifty more dollars and Sammy can have a proper Barbie house for her birthday.
I remember that Sammy needs colour pencils for school. I find a packet for a dollar fifty and head to the bus stop.
The bus stops at the end of the gravel driveway. I walk towards my half of the duplex and stumble over grocery bags that swing in front of my knees. My sneakers wake up the dust that coats the front door. When I push the door forward, the chain tightens and stops. Good kids. I set down the bags so that I can slip my hand past the door then unhook the chain.
The kids aren’t in the lounge room, but their toys are scattered across the carpet. Behind the couch, the dining table is covered in crayons and cardboard. I dump the bags on the last empty square of the kitchen counter. The handles have made red trenches across my hand. I hear someone shout: ‘Cahh!’ I jump, not prepared for my three-year-old’s cockatoo squawk. I look down and behind me to meet wispy brown hair and two hands clutching my jeans. He needs a haircut.
‘What is it Logie Bear?’
‘It’s the wollof,’ he says.
Sammy shouts from the hallway: ‘It’s not a wolf; it’s a dog.’
Sammy walks into the kitchen. She’s rubbing her eyes and the ends of her ringlets are frayed. There’s barking behind me. I pry Logan’s fingers off me and turn around to see that damn stray dog barking at the glass. As I slide the door open the collie turns and runs down the gravel driveway.
‘Mum,’ Logan calls out. ‘Mum-mum-mum-mum.’
‘My name isn’t Mum anymore,’ I say as I walk back to the kids in the kitchen. ‘For the rest of day, it’s Lana. I’ll make your dinner as a favour, but for the rest of the day, my name is Lana; I’m not Mum, and I get to do what I want.’
Both the kids look confused, but that doesn’t stop me from picking up my soap mag from the counter and walking to my room. I close the door behind me: locking it won’t do any good.
There’s a double bed that is only just smaller than the room, and it is probably the only thing that I have to myself: no man, and no kids sleeping in it anymore. Not always, anyway. I reach up to the wall-mounted fan in the corner of the room and switch it on so that it can croon away the unfriendly sounds. I lie down on the bed and squeeze my eyes shut. The fan slowly muffles the thuds of kitchen cupboards slamming—kitchen cupboards waiting for me—and the whirr fills the room. God, what would I give to not to be needed for half a day? I imagine a room, similar to the one I’m lying in, but without cough medicine stains on the sheets and without a pile of laundry blocking the drawers to my dresser. This other room doesn’t have a broken lock on the door because there’s no one to keep out. This other room doesn’t even have me in it. There’s a woman my age, but noticeably younger. Her eyes are closed too, but she doesn’t squint, because she’s not afraid to see what pictures play when the room is dark. This woman doesn’t imagine a world without her children and she doesn’t scrunch wrinkles into her eyes to punish herself. For her, there is only the whirr of the fan. For the first time today, my shoulders roll away from my neck. Then the fan stops.
‘Mum,’ I hear Sammy wail. ‘The TV’s dead.’
‘Okay,’ I shout back.
Bloody hell. I had another week. There was definitely one more week.
In the lounge room, my bag is on the couch, partly hidden under the elastic cover that has snapped off the back. I fish out my mobile and dial Energex. I’m on hold for ten minutes before a man explains to me that my bill should have been paid one week ago, and that he would be happy to turn the power on immediately if I were able to pay that bill now. I hang up. My teeth trace the edges of my nails, ready to strip off the white bits. Outside the glass door, the sky is cooling. The television drops a long shadow that reaches my feet. Both Energex and the Post Office will close soon.
‘Sammantha, Logan,’ I call, standing up.
The hallway echoes gentle thumps until my boy and girl appear together. They stand back, probably unsure of my mood.
‘Clear your stuff off the table and find the torches. Pull the batteries out of the remotes.’
They move without question. Good kids. In my room, I undress my bed, the only thing that is mine alone, and carry its clothes out to Sammy and Logie. The three of us drape the sheets over the dining table and anchor it with our four wooden chairs, old phone books, and a cricket bat. We stuff the interior with pillows, blankets, and torches: a mutated bed. Just before the shadows take the room, I light candles all over the house.
Both Logie and Sammy have eaten dinner and fallen asleep under the table. Their torches throw glowing UFOs on our sheet-walls, which remind me of the Min-Min lights I’d seen outside of Mount Isa. You can see the stars out there. Everyone smiles at everybody, and no one asks if you finished high school. Maybe I’ll head back up there one day. Could even go as far as Katherine. I wonder if the signs on the main road still have bowties drawn on the kangaroos. Maybe my graffiti hasn’t been washed over and the sign outside the pub still reads FORM ONE pLANEt. That shithole was beautiful. Even during the floods. We probably would have stayed up there with Anthony if he hadn’t pushed me over.
I remember packing garbage bags full of Sammy’s clothes and toys while Anthony alternated between crying and screaming. He kept saying that he was sorry, and he was. I kept my back to him as he followed me around the apartment. Sammy’s things were strewn everywhere: in the bath, on the bed, on the couch. I knew that I’d have to leave a lot behind if I was going to get out that night. Anything that couldn’t fit into a garbage bag stayed. I even cut face and arm holes into a grocery bag to put over Sammy. I’d never been able to find a raincoat for a two year old. Finally, Anthony kicked over my spider plant and walked out into the rain. I picked up my plastic daughter and pressed her to my hip. When I pulled the receiver to my face, I was stable, but then Sammy stroked my stomach and told it that Mummy was looking after us. Dan, the bartender down the road, seemed to understand me through the phone and the rain. He wasn’t exactly a friend, but he never liked Anthony, so I thought he’d help us out.
When Dan’s blue hatchback reversed up to the front door, Anthony was still out. Although Dan’s a short guy, he was strong and he moved quickly. He buckled Sammy in the car, while I crammed garbage bags into the boot and front passenger seat. The last thing I grabbed was the doona off the bed, which I laid over Sammy and I in the backseat as we drove away.
Our first night in Mount Isa, a guy named Sidney had set us up in his ex-wife’s caravan in exchange for walking his Shih Tzu and teaching him to cook potato bake. Sidney was a boilermaker, and was due to retire at the end of the year. I can’t remember much about him, except that he didn’t drink or watch TV. I wonder if he would remember me if I hitched back up there. Once Logan turns 18, there won’t be much left for me here.
Both kids are cradling one of my legs when Dan knocks on the door. Damn, he knocks loudly. He sounds like a cop. Quickly but delicately, I slip out from under the table, and shift a candle stump away from the bed sheet. Wax has run off the magazine and dried in the carpet. There goes the bond.
I slide off the chain. Dan stands outside the door. The neighbour’s white sensor-light reaches him through the fence. He’s gained a few more kilos since last month, and his strawberry nose signals that he’s started drinking again. Maybe I’d notice some attractive features if he’d stop asking me to marry him. Does he think that at twenty-four my only option is a middle-aged beach bum? Having kids doesn’t make you desperate; it makes you pickier.
I step outside.
‘Keep it down. They’re asleep,’ I say, sliding the door closed behind me.
‘Sorry,’ he mocks. ‘Did you want to talk in the car? I didn’t read your whole text. But I brought some cash.’
His rusted hatchback is parked on the street. I follow him down the driveway and the sensor-light flicks off behind us. He hands me a thirty pack of smokes. There are ten left.
‘No thank you?’ He asks.
‘I’m grateful, okay?’
He opens the passenger door for me, but I have to knock a tissue box and a pair of sunglasses off the sand-covered seat. The door thumps shut. The pineapple air-freshener turns in my throat, but it doesn’t mask the smell of cheese. Dan walks around the front of the car, onto the stagnant street, then opens his own door.
‘So Lana,’ he says as he adjusts his board shorts. ‘Are you married yet?’
‘Why would I want to be?’
‘That’s not very romantic.’
My hands grip the sides of the seat; sand sticks in my palms.
‘Are you going to help or are you going to take the piss?’ I ask.
‘Of course I’m going to help. I love those kids. Like they were my own. Of course,’ he rattles.
The radio glows 9:06. The kids could wake up and wonder where I am. We could be here all night.
‘You know that I hate asking,’ my hands say with me. ‘And you know that I’ll pay you back—’
‘—Don’t worry about it. I don’t mind. I’ll do whatever I can,’ he says. ‘I want to make you happy. I love you, Lana.’
‘Don’t make me sick.’
He reaches across my stomach and touches my left hip. Mum’s boyfriend slips his hand between the buttons of my school blouse. I strike Dan across the chest, then turn to the door. The handle flicks back. He had locked it. Pull the handle twice quickly and the door will give. There it goes. The cold air is relief. Without looking back, I rush up the dark driveway. A few more steps and the sensor-light will trigger. I call out to Mum, but she’s not home. I call my brothers—I call my sister—but no one’s here. Dan’s thongs crunch in the gravel, and when he speaks, his words crunch on my neck.
‘Don’t be like this. Settle down,’ he whines.
There is a ghost gum on the other side of the fence, and during the last storm, some large branches crashed onto our driveway. One branch, over a metre long, is just by my feet. I bend and clutch it. The warped branch is wide enough that my fingers don’t meet up around it. The vacuum cleaner pipe is hard in my hand. I lift the pipe above my head, but Mum’s boyfriend catches it and throws it against my hip. Just as Dan steps behind me, I turn and belt him in the shoulder. He stumbles back. Almost deliberately, he drops. The man keeps hitting my arms and my legs. The branch punches down onto Dan’s stomach. I drop the branch and step back. Dan is panting. He doesn’t seem hurt, but his eyes are wet. On his back, he looks around, his hands deep in the gravel and dust.
‘You’re crazy,’ he says.
Dan leans on his elbows, as if to get up. My brother David walks in—he’s only thirteen. The man takes the pipe and tells him to leave. David tells him to fuck off so the man swings the pipe at his head. I scream and kick him. He moans and recoils. ‘I’m sorry,’ I repeat. My eyes won’t leave him. He can’t get up. He can’t come near me or my kids. I won’t let him. Dan seems to deflate: he sighs and falls back into the gravel. In one snapping motion, I lean down to him, slip his wallet out of his loose side pocket, and spring back into position. Inside the wallet are a few red notes, a five, and two fifties. With his cash in my pocket, I drop the wallet and run to the house.
The sheets hang just as I left them. I relock the door. Dan is shouting my name outside. The muffled voice becomes clearer and louder. At the dining table, I lift up the sheet and tap Sammy and Logie on the shoulder.
‘Hey boys and girls,’ I whisper with a stretched smile.
‘Uncle Dan is acting funny. Don’t be scared, okay? Just stay under the table.’
They burrow back into their pillows.
Dan’s voice is outside the side door. He’s trying to look through the curtain panels. I crawl under the table with the cricket bat in my hands and hide us in the sheet. My eyes cling to the porcelain faces of my sleeping kids while I wait for his voice to fade.
Eventually, Dan leaves.
I lie there for a few hours, fidgeting with the torch, projecting different sizes of glowing rings onto the sheets. The fractured light is first shaped as a UFO, then an exploding star, and then a halo. Then I remember a story that Sidney told me, about when his brother died. When he was in his twenties, he and his brother had been drinking and hooning along the dirt highway outside of Mount Isa. Their car flipped over. Back then, there weren’t any mobiles, so Sidney sat on the side of the road all night, in the middle of nowhere. He just waited, hoping that by morning a truck would appear in a wave of heat. For that night, all he could do was sit in the desert, in the sharp cold, with his dead brother at his side, and wait.
Kelly Palmer is currently developing a novella as part of her Honours thesis at QUT. Her exegesis, Being Mother and Father, explores pressures of gender performance on single parents in low-socio economic Queensland. Kelly has written for REX, SNReview, Our Logan, QUTE-mag, and The Point Magazine. Her fiction has been shortlisted for the QUT Creative Writing Prize and longlisted for The State Library of Queensland’s Young Writer Award. Even at 21-years-old, the first drafts of her stories start on her palms.