Rolled Together5 March 2021
Unseen, I saw them as a spot of stillness in the sea of girls and suited commuters: Mum’s face a mask of serenity and Andy with his hands behind his back. I could’ve run right there. Gotten a place on Merrill Ave, swapped fetid city air with switchboard girls and pretty receptionists. A job and a discount to buy dresses. Dresses to wear to the Italian club, dance in and spill out into streets.
Andy broke into a smile. Something in me deflated. The crowd parted for his big, friendly figure. I hugged him fiercely. Over his shoulder, Beatrice smiled at me gap-toothedly.
Coming home: into that wet bark small, winding streets wet with bitter rain, green green. The chimney still swelled from the hipped roof. The porch wrapped ever around. Golden wattle dripped from kempt acacia trees, over the eaves, and stained the underlying hedges and saplings. In the yard, Missy ran circles around Beatrice until she got tired and fell to the ground, fanning her skirt around her. The old chocolate lab kissed her. Pushing curtains aside, easing the window open, with effort, I felt: yes, a place is a person.
The front door opened and closed. Dad squeezed me and apologised for not picking me up. He’d gotten thinner, almost rangy. He had a moustache.
“Do you like it?”
“It suits you.”
His upper lip twitched appreciatively.
“Found this one loitering in front, think it belongs to you.”
Eugene smiled easily, breaking out of his lean against the doorway and approaching me like Missy would a dead bird.
He furtively hugged me, “Hi, you.”
Mum set the pasta pot on the table and kissed Dad. We sat down to lunch. Mum remarked I’d gotten awfully tan. I smoothed down Beatrice’s baby hairs. I told them about hockey. I told them I was student director of this year’s play, along with Madame Davis. We did The Crucible. I was Giles.
“Eugene,” Dad boomed, too-loud like a father. “How was the rugby tour?”
“Yeah, good, we landed in Christchurch, stayed there for two weeks—well, it was pretty even in training, they’re tough boys, but we got ‘em in finals. Three-day mountain hike there, bit brutal. Then, off to Wellington for two weeks, stopped for a day summit hike en route to Rotorua, stayed there for about a week—yessir, we won.”
“Where were the hikes?” I said.
“What?” said Eugene, spearing a potato.
“The names of the mountains. I might know them; we did New Zealand in geography.”
He chewed. “Can’t remember,” Eugene looked at my face and paused, “I’ll ask someone about it,” he said mildly. I squeezed his hand.
“I was in labour for 36 hours. Your dad, bless his heart, steps out—to get me juice. Whenever you come home and he sees you for the first time, it’s that look on his face, gobsmacked, holding that popper like an idiot.” She took my hand, “When Eugene sees you, it’s the same face. He loves you.”
Dad was showing the boys what he’d been doing on the Monaro. The faint sounds of men and metal in the garage were heard from the dining table by a mother and daughter, over dishes and bread plates to be washed.
Then: daybreak, in four heavy feet on the porch. Two shadows walked careful around the house, cleaving the yellow light careless on the table. Mum courtesy-smiled at you through the window.
After lunch, I brought out cold water and orange quarters. We had an acre or so, a small city of orange, mango and nectarine trees. Your dad stood next to the fence, secateurs in one hand and the other on his hip, proud figure borne to his left. His knee’s going again.
You crested the hill, and walked over leisurely, stupidly—you slack-jaw you apathetic you idiot—slow-careless enough to hurt me. I turned to you like a well-oiled machine.
A fly landed on the tray. I watched it crawl over the orange flesh.
Two weeks later, I saw him at the shops.
“I’m going to pop to the chemist, meet me in the car,” Mum said, rummaging in her bag.
I glanced at Danny, craned like a waterbird over the confectionery stand.
“What’d people think if they saw?”
“What do you mean?”
“Out in public? Together? Alone?”
She blinked, “It’s Danny.”
He’s the help, she didn’t say. It’s like leaving you alone with a lawnmower.
Danny came over, toting a Polly Waffle and cough drops. The checkout girl’s nametag said she was Anna.
“Busy much today?”
“No, miss. All tradies round here. At work now.” She paused. “There was a funny bloke in earlier today. He was a laff.”
“How so?” Danny chipped in.
Anna took him in—hip against counter, all floppy hair and denim—and blushed. Her hair was a pretty strawberry. But she’d put in curlers, and the ringlets were too tight. If I could just reach over, and comb my fingers through.
She giggled. Spots of red appeared on her neck, like wine through tablecloth.
“Well, a bloke came up to the cigarette counter, and he asks, if I could please fetch him some groceries? Right? Anyways, I said to him, such as? And he goes missus’s outta town. Asks if I could please grab a trolley and get the essentials for him. So, me and the girls do a nice little trolley for him, mostly frozen stuff, while he smokes. We bag it up, he comes in, puts some cash on the counter and off he trots… He was all… I dunno, pinched up. Checked out, you know. My mum says people can go their whole life without making a single decision. First, it’s mum, then teacher, then the better half, then the heavenly father. That’ll be $18.90.”
Don’t look at me like that.
I took up jogging. Through the scribbly gum trees, a powder blue buggy crawled and overtook me. I rounded a corner. There was a figure in the middle of the road some hundred metres up. They had a dog with them.
“You shouldn’t be walking in the middle of the road!”
Danny stopped. “You’re puffed,” he said.
The night and the rain-slick road made one big dark. He looked small, like a kid in the ocean.
“You shouldn’t be doing that, not with Missy. Why are you walking her?”
“You know everyone went into the city tonight.”
“I could’ve done it. You didn’t have to come all the way.”
“All the way to Dashwood,” he drawled. “If you’re allowed to trespass on my postcode—why shouldn’t I—”
“When did I—”
“Not my decision!”
“Does it not count for girls from the suburbs?”
He stared hard at the nape of my neck. I think.
Missy panted happily. We turned the corner onto my street. I felt a terrible inertia, the type normally only felt by people lying on grass and looking up through the leaves of trees, as the earth shivers interminably on. We paused next to my mailbox.
He can hear my heartbeat. Lub-dub-ta, yes-come-in, stay-a-while, please-please-please. He presses his lips together. Bastard.
After, we went down to the living room. I laid on the sofa, spent nerves fizzling out sluggishly. You kissed me again and sat on the floor, next to the fireplace.
“I never asked what you’ve been doing,” I said, my voice too-small.
“I’ve been missing you.”
The bullfrogs bleated like pudgy, warty cherubs.
The first time we kissed, in the bush in summer, I asked you what you were thinking. Y’know how sometimes it feels like there’s a stone inside you? Like a peach, you said, slow and slurry enough for me to almost miss it, I don’t feel like that right now. I feel like I’ve gotten fourteen hours of sleep.
I looked at you and was astonished to find you drawn up into yourself like a child, rocking back and forth, hardly at all. But the effect of you! Your brow febrile, bathed in the fire like a warning light. I thought O God, I said My lord, push our heads, kneel us together in prayer and let us live like sinners. Our knees could be mirroring each other into forever. Rolling my head against his knee, trying to soak in his brain. No hunger like my hunger for you. I take it down from the shelf, and unfurl it as old paper.