Mother’s pace quickens as we approach the last shop in town, dragging me past the window filled with fairies in tuxedos and white lace, holding hands atop swirling ivory layers. Petite wine-red roses, purple irises with yellow tongues, orange poppies and sunburst daffodils adorn concoctions shrouded in a rainbow of icing. Chaff coloured loaves stacked high next to dainty rounds of pastry finish the artwork of edible treats.
Through the window, the lady with straight black hair and sloping eyes looks at me with a dark chocolate gaze, her face rumpling and lips curling. Warming blood flushes my cheeks, the same colour as her painted lips. I smile back while keeping up with Mother’s stride.
“Their skin reminds me of bile,” she shudders. Mother bakes her own bread and biscuits so she needn’t buy from those people. The open door allows a bouquet into the air, spit fills my mouth, and I peek around her wobbly belly, cut in two from the size too small stockings she wears, even on days the bus-stop bench burns your bottom through your clothing. She rages about the businesses closing down.
“Bloody immigrants: taking jobs, sending our money home to their families, or worse, bringing them here.” Mother pulls my hand, demanding attention. “Come on, don’t dawdle,” My shoes are scuffed on the toes, the heels rarely touching the dirt road as we reach the outskirts of town.
I run out of animals waltzing about in my head to my silent chanting of old MacDonald’s farm. Sometimes, when I sing aloud, I forget to leave out the lions, elephants and such, ’til Mother’s hand slaps the side of my head. She screeches, her eyes fiery with something I don’t understand. “People’ll think you’re daft, whoever heard of such things on a farm.” I think it would be a magical place, Noah’s Ark without the sea sickness.
Our rusted gate tilts, hinges hanging on nails half out and bent. It screeches like Mother as I push it open, digging a furrow in the dirt, Jingles rushes at the opening and I pull it closed. He makes do with a head butt slamming me against a rail and looks me in the eyes. One day, when Mother isn’t watching, I’ll be sluggish – something she says a lot about me – I’ll let him run away from the sagging wire and endless gorse that share his imprisonment.
Home on the veranda a silent mobile of dead ducks wait to be plucked. Our neighbour always drops something off when he goes hunting. Their chests are the colour of polished greenstone. They remind me of Daddy.
“I’m home,” he’d yell, back from the bush, dirty and smelly. He’d spread his booty over the bench in the shed, and for weeks he’d shape and polish every piece. I’d hold the pieces of greenstone up to his eyes to see if they matched. The ones that did, he’d keep. “For your necklace,” he’d say, laughing. “Then you’ll always know who your Daddy is. Just hold it up to my eyes.” Mother glares at my neck every day, but never speaks of it.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper. Their eyes are milky, empty. Settling on a warped wooden stool I lay the first duck on my lap, grabbing feathers I tug them backwards, leaving small holes that close slowly. With each pull, their beaks sway back and forth hitting my leg; their limp necks protest, complaining at my attempt to reveal their naked corpses.
Against the cracking grey wood trellis a matted sunburnt rose sprawls down into the dandelions, sucking up moisture left from the morning dew. Some days, I wish the sun would suck up moisture from me. Maybe then everything would quieten; become slow, cool, calm, like the pond when the breeze stops and the ripples disappear. When I dig for worms under the soil’s cracked top, it’s crumbly and moist. Maybe that’s Heaven. Fresh. Shady. Spongy. Silent.
Father Gormbles – his eyes are like the ducks’ – says wanting to die is a sin, just as bad as murder, fornication and adultery. I looked up adultery in the dictionary, ’cause Mother says Daddy’s damned to hell for all the adultery he did. I wonder who he did it with, seems like a lot of trouble just to go to someplace not so different from here.
“It’s a load of bollocks,” says Jane. “There’s no heaven, no hell.” Her Mum says it actually. Mother thinks Mrs Mitchell is a sinner, and mouths an unvoiced prayer when she sees her, but she’s the bank manager’s wife, so she does it when Mrs Mitchell is walking away. Jane Mitchell has all sorts of ideas. Her mother keeps a fat Buddha in her hall.
“He was a great man,” she talks about all the people who pray to him. I don’t mention him to Mother. If it wasn’t for Mr Mitchell’s job she’d never let me visit. I looked Buddha up; I think I’d have liked him if we’d met. Mrs Mitchell talks a lot, using her hands, Mother says people who talk all the time just waste words.
“Never say more than is necessary.” Even her prayers are short, to the point. “Dear Lord, make me less of a sinner, forgive me for not being the person you intended; help me raise this child to do your bidding. Amen.” She never says my name. I hope he knows which child she’s talking about. I can’t wait for Saturday, Jane and I are going to the library. It’s crisp inside, silent.
She’s waiting for me when I get there, reading a book, sunlight hammering the back of her head, turning her hair into a curling bonfire.
“Listen to this,” she whispers. “It says here, every life’s represented by an unbreakable thread. Each thread’s different, and colours show what type of life you have. Sometimes your colours change, depending what you do of course.” I wonder, are they stitched together, or does your thread hang along side the others without touching? “Wanna go to the beach tomorrow?” Jane asks laughing. “I know, I know – after church, tomorrow then.”
“Race you,” I yell as we run up into the deserted sand dunes. We drip sea water as we throw ourselves on to our towels.
“I wish I was older,” Jane wants desperately to grow up, have a boyfriend hold her hand, kiss her. “He’ll own a car,” she says, “take me to the movies, the beach. At night we’ll go parking; when we’ve been together a year, I’ll let him touch my boobies I think.” She imagines the future more than me. When I roll over she’s got her top off. “C’mon then, show us yours.” Hers are kinda like mine, but her nipples don’t point.
“Don’t be a scaredy-cat. Give us a look.” Mine look like the end of an ice cream cone. It’s embarrassing; I wear a singlet to flatten them.
“I don’t…” my cheeks are hot.
“Baby,” she taunts. My eyes start watering.
“Shh,” she says, hugging me. “It’s okay. At least they’re not like Trina’s, hey.” Trina already has a bra; her boobs popped out just before summer. During athletics, it’s funny to watch ’cause they move when she runs. These days most of the boys look at them instead of her face. Trina punched Oliver Broome on the nose for staring. Oliver is such a jerk.
I’m getting a training bra next time we go into the city. Funny name for a bra. I looked it up in the dictionary. There wasn’t anything about training bras, but it said training means bringing a person to an agreed standard of proficiency by practise or instruction. I had to look up proficiency.
“How do you instruct boobs?” I decided to ask. It seemed an innocent question, ’til Mother slapped me.
“Don’t you…ever…let me hear you say that. People will think you’re a slut.” I was crying and she shook me.
“I won’t,” another slap, “…I’m sorry.” Covering my head I took off for my room. Mother hates gossip about us, but her reaction to the word boobs seemed over the top. Sometimes I can’t do anything right.
When I get back from the beach, there’s a note. Grandmother Willis, her mother, has had a stroke and she’ll be home late. Grandmother has been in a home forever. I’ve never met her. Daddy and I would drop Mother off for visits and go off to the beach. If it rained we went to the aquarium. I loved watching the sharks skim by the windows, sleek, as if they had a purpose.
“Grandmother gets confused,” Daddy said once. We never speak of Grandmother, or about where we come from, as if we never existed before here. One day I heard Mother say she’d been an orphan for a long time, and was a widow; I wonder why she lies, and makes me lie.
Since Daddy left, his photos are in a box. When we moved here, they went into the attic. I’m not allowed to go into the attic, but now I’m alone, it’s time to go peek around. The box is pushed behind and under others. I dust off a seat and open it. Underneath all the framed photos are a bunch of albums.
In one are photos of Mother, at picnics and parties. Her face is soft, even in black and white her eyes have colour, and her lips are curled, like she knows some delicious secret and is teasing you with it. There’s a photo with flowers in her hair, she’s dancing, and photos of Mother with a friend, in places I’ve never seen, laughing, smiling, hugging.
Stuck between some pages is a yellowed envelope. Inside is one sheet of paper, crinkled. Like it’s been scrunched up and smoothed out again. It’s Daddy’s writing.
Not a day shall go by when I won’t think of you as that, when I won’t think of the two of you. I can’t pretend anymore that we will be okay. I’m sorry. Loving you was the most breathtaking thing of my life. Now I watch you, everyday getting deeper into guilt, and I see it breaking your soul into pieces. Even changing the way I was isn’t enough to drag you out of all that guilt. You’re not sick, you’re not bad, but I don’t believe I shall ever make you see that. I’m sorry for the others, but I was dying. I need to be loved incandesantly. Instead, your light is dimming every day. Maybe without me, you’ll find some way to be happy again. I’ll never stop missing you both.
What does that mean? Sitting still for a very long time, I realise Mother could be home soon; I shut the box, push it back. Keeping the album, I hide it in a box with my old dolls, in the corner of my closet. Checking my clothes for dust I hear Mother’s car pull in. She’s quiet when she comes inside. She sits at the table, looking at everything and nothing at the same time.
“What have you been doing?” she finally asks.
“After the beach, I did some homework.”
“I’ll make us something to eat then.” She stands up and looks at me.” Your grandmother died. I’ll have to take Thursday off work, for the funeral. I’ll say it’s an aunt who died I expect. Go wash your hands.” At dinner neither of us talks; when I’m finished she waves me away.
“You better go to bed, it’s late.”
“Night Mother,” I reply, but she’s not listening. I get into bed and listen ’til I hear her door shut. Quietly I get out the album, pull the covers up, turn on the torch, and open it.
There are more photos of Mother and her friend. Mother’s pregnant in some of them. There are no photos of Daddy anywhere, but no spaces either, no missing photos. On the last page is a large black and white photo. Mother is holding me; standing behind her is that friend again.
I slide the album back into the box but can’t sleep, so I get up and sit by the window. I’m still there when the sun rises. When I hear Mother moving around, I get dressed and go into the kitchen. She looks like she hasn’t slept either.
I don’t get a chance until Thursday to go back to the attic. Pretending I’m sick I stay home. Mother’s worrying about the funeral so she doesn’t look too closely, or ask too many questions.
“Stay in bed, I’ll get Mrs Morriss to look in on you,” she says. “Remember that I am burying an aunt, if she asks.”
“Don’t cause any trouble. I don’t want people looking for me today. I mean it…behave.” She pats me on the head before leaving. I lay in bed watching the clock. Best to give her time to be really gone. After ten minutes I can’t wait any more.
In the attic I quickly dig out the box. Placing the frames on the floor, I’m struck by a feeling I don’t understand. Something is out of place but I’m not sure what. I take out another album and head back to my room.
In the front there’s a photo of Mother, Daddy and I. I’m not much older than the photo in the other album, and I get that feeling again. Jumping up I grab it, first looking at one, then the other. I know there’s something I’m missing, but I don’t know what. I have a feeling it’s important. Maybe I should talk to Jane. Her mind works different; maybe she can figure it out. When I finish one, I go upstairs to get more; slowly I see our family change. The smiles aren’t as big and goofy. Mother and Daddy stop hugging; they stand beside each other like nutcracker soldiers. Then it’s just Mother and I.
After school, Jane barges into my room.
“Right then, what’s the matter with you?” she asks.
“Nothing really. Mother’s away for the day. So…”
“Oh my, you’re becoming a scoundrel,” Jane laughs. “Your Mum’s gone to the funeral?”
“Why can’t you tell anyone?”
“I don’t know. She’s funny about anyone knowing stuff like that.”
“She’s a bit strange. Does she still cross herself and pray after she sees Mum? Mum thinks it’s really funny. She’s always saying she wants to give your mum a proper scare, but Dad won’t let her.”
“Wanna see what I found?”
“Sure.” Laying the albums on the bed, I pull Jane down. First I open the one with Mother and her friend.
“Look. Where’s Dad? There isn’t one photo of him. I’m sure that’s me,” I point to the baby in the last photo. “Who is this person?”
“Seems…funny there’s no photo of your Dad.”
“Look at this.”
“What’s in it?” she asks. I show Jane the page with Mother and Daddy and me.
“This is the first time Daddy is in any of the books. After I was born.”
“Weird,” she says.
“Weird,” we say together.
Part 2 – I am not 100% happy with the way this story ends at the moment – so when I am I’ll post it.
Stay tuned…if you are interested in finding out what happens that is.
For A Taste of Honey Part 2 – click here.
For A Taste of Honey Part 3 – click here.