Rachel, a girl in my class, lives on our side of Montpelier Street, The Big Hill. She walks home every afternoon and said I should walk with her. I told Rachel I asked for permission but my mother said no. We’re in grade seven, she said, it’s no big deal. Why’d you even ask? But I hadn’t asked at all. There’d have been no point and the question would only have gotten me into trouble. I don’t go home after school like other kids. Not really.
Two-thirty he arrives, always, even though class doesn’t finish until three. Two-thirty he begins his patrol, sitting with Mr Jim, the school gardener and odd-jobs man. With each year’s move to a new classroom, JG finds a nearby place to sit so I can see him and know he’s waiting for me. As we rise, he does too, and by the time we’ve formed two orderly rows by the door, waiting to be dismissed, he is there at the top of the stairs.
‘Learn all your lessons?’ The first thing he says.
‘Paid attention? Didn’t talk out-a-place?’
‘Sunday night, Genie,’ yells Evie, buzz-full of Friday afternoon fun. ‘Six o’clock. Don’t forget!’
‘Countdown! Countdown!’ That’s Gayle, chanting our favourite show’s opening theme into an invisible microphone. ‘Count-duhown! Count! Down!’
‘JPY,’ says Evie. ‘Live!’ Laugh lines sweep the edges of her mouth, cupping her movie star smile.
‘The race for my hand is over!’ Gayle throws open her arms, tosses her head back dramatically. ‘John Paul Young … take me!’
‘I’ll call you straight after.’ A canvas bag slung over her shoulder, its straps loose as her shoelaces, Evie pecks the air around my face—Mwah-mwah-mwah-mwah-mwah—before whipping away to race Gayle to the school gate. ‘Pussyfoot’s gonna be number one!’
‘Go Blondie!’ I call after her but not very loudly.
‘It’s not the way that you do it,’ Evie sings, doing the slinky moves from the music clip we all know off by heart. ‘But how you do it to me.’ She is tanned, lean like a ballerina. ‘Ooh-na-na, ooh-na-na-hi-ya…’ The prettiest girl I’ve ever seen. ‘… Ooh-na-na-hi-ya-hi-ya.’ The prettiest girl there could ever be. And more. I’ve never known her to be mean to anyone, even when they deserved it. On the weekends, Evie Faith Mayhew paints her nails blue; she takes photographs with her very own camera of her four sisters playing ‘hats and hairstyles,’ of her newborn brother, Kyle, of the creek and ducks and ghost gums behind her house.
JG always opens my school port, right there on the racks outside class—‘Dunno why your mother lets you watch that tripe’—to make sure everything is in its place, that no pen or rubber band or other bought and paid-for possession has been forgotten. I feel like I’m being stripped down to my underwear and twirled around, a mutant curiosity—half girl, half dumb puppet. ‘Not right, that tripe,’ he reminds me again before, ‘And your tables?’ Everything is lifted out of the sturdy Globite hard-shell, checked, straightened. He opens and closes my pencil case, peers inside, blows shavings out of the zipper that he tests is still intact. ‘What about your mornin’ tables?’
I could tell him I got them right. It would be so easy. Ten out of ten. I’ve even practised saying it in front of the mirror. But my dumb puppet mouth drops open and out it comes: ‘I got stuck on eight times seven. I don’t know why I said fifty-four.’
‘Well, that’s a shame,’ says John Gerald Nolan, my mother’s father. ‘A real shame, to let us down by one. Still,’ he says, ‘won’t happen again. We’ll make sure-a-that.’
JG delivers me to school in the morning and retrieves me every afternoon. It has been this way since my very first day.
Today, as it often does, the gear stick in JG’s old Consul grinds and jerks and refuses to move as he wants it. You mongrel. The car lurches and bucks. You mongrel bastard. Once, when I’d been very little, I giggled, and JG’s face had turned slap-red, his funny little mouth, the shape of a D since the last trip to hospital, wet and twisting. I still struggle to know what’s coming—happy and mad look the same at the start, erupting from that small dark puncture in his face. I can’t remember what happened precisely but I’ve never laughed again at the sticking gears. I can’t imagine I ever did. Laughter is a school thing.
We turn left, left again, then right. School spirals away behind us. At a stoplight, the two hands in my lap no longer look like my own. Zinging with itch, they bloat blue, inflating like giant five-fingered balloons. All in your head, that itch, says my mother. My eyes flick right once, twice, skimming the tripwire between me and JG. I want to pop them, my balloon-hands, watch them bullet through the crack of open window, whoosh, itch gone for good.
Up the long steep climb of The Big Hill we pass Rachel, talking to herself as she walks, picking flowers from people’s gardens to put in her hair. Eight times tables pile up in my head like crashed cars. I try to think of Clemmie, of the secret sausage in my pocket held over from lunch, his whiskery grin, the whirring stump of his tail. But the car seat is too high; my feet dangle, shoes so tight, toes squirming, teeming with tadpoles. Wasps. I lift my feet and cross them under me on the hot vinyl, uncross them, cross them again until I’m told to Sit still, girl, for Christ’s sake!
Out the window, times tables slip and skew across the world, always in words, never numbers.
Eight times three. Twenty-four.
Eight times four. Thirty-two.
Eight times five. Forty.
Eight times six. Forty-eight.
Eight times seven. Fifty-si– …
Same age as Clemmie, if one dog year truly equals seven human ones.
Fifty-six, Gene. Fifty-six, dummy!
Eight sevens. Seven eights.
A miracle he’s made it this far, said my grandmother only last week.
Eight sevens are fifty-six.
Sitting on my fingers, crushing them, I dare them to pop, to whoosh. Bottled beetles I’m setting free.
Seven eights are fifty-six.
Later he will ask me—and I will get it right. He will test me again, again, and I will get it right. He will try to trick me, confuse me, trip me up, go as far as times thirteen. Bettering me, he will say. He will get to my mother and she’ll test me too, right up till bedtime, again in the morning first thing. But I will answer correctly and they will be pleased.
As always, the greasy stench of mutton on the boil. I swallow back hard as JG latches the screen door behind us.
My eyes snap shut but the greying rags of flesh drift and writhe in the pot on the stove, fall through my thoughts as hour after hour they have fallen away from the bone. I breathe through my mouth but cannot escape it. The smell is as much a part of my grandparents’ house as the stiff nylon carpet that nips at my feet, as the yellowing pictures of the dogs, long-dead. Jindy Mo, his muzzled snout first past the post. JG’s only winner. His little champion before he became no good, a dish-licker, gone, like all the rest.
All the week’s scraps and peelings are collected in a wide plastic bucket in the corner of the kitchen. It is too full for the lid to close and flies hover, land, rub their legs together in their scheming way. By now, my grandmother should have emptied it into the pit under the mango trees, turned it all over with a pitchfork for JG to use in the garden. But she sits, watching the last few minutes of Days of our Lives. Before that there’ll have been The Young and the Restless and General Hospital. She never misses a single one, her American Plays she calls them, during which there must always be silence. From the kitchen I wave hello.
‘Ssh! Ssh!’ she replies.
It is afternoon but the tiny house on the hill is dark, cast always in its own shadows, and in the light of the screen my grandmother’s face is black and grey, cratered, creepy, half gone.
I hear JG using the toilet. Once an outhouse for farm workers on a too-steep paddock, it was my newlywed grandparents’ only asset, and they built their home around it, adding rooms when they could: six steps up to a kitchen, a sitting room that lists right, two small bedrooms, a bathroom by the front door only Grandma and I use. JG washes outside, behind the rainwater tank. No high hallways, no verandahs, no radio or records, only doorways, each room tacked to the next, all of it perched over a toilet stall with a head-high door but no roof, noises and smells rising up and over its weatherboard walls.
My mother’s mother sits close to the television on a fold-away chair, the kind campers take away with them. The chair is stiff and flimsy. Mum wants to buy Grandma a recliner but she won’t hear of it. No need for frills, Lonnie, she says. Besides, when she watches TV, especially the American Plays, I don’t think my grandmother is still here. She’s in the hospital as those by her bedside weep, on the witness stand forced to confess shocking secrets, singing in a nightclub, looked upon lovingly by a mysterious man at the bar.
I watch her watching her beloved screen, how she tilts her cup and pours a little tea into the saucer. Only a little, puffing her breath over it, tipping it back into the cup. She says tea cools faster this way.
Evie’s mother, Marilyn, sips black coffee all through the day. It boils on the stove in a slim silver pot. Mum let me sleep over at Evie’s four times, on a Friday night, but that stopped when JG found out. We raise our own, he warned her. Marilyn is from America and makes coleslaw with pineapple and tiny marshmallows in it, homemade pizza, lasagne. No boiled mutton. And she calls us ‘ladies.’ How was school today, ladies? Tell me somethin’, ladies. Tell me somethin’ about nothin’. Once, before I knew them, knew what to expect, before I understood the wonder of them, I said that nobody would want to hear about nothing, that you can’t tell about nothing. But don’t you know, Evie’s mother said. Nothing is ever nothing, sweet girl. There’s no such thing as nothing. And if there were, I sure would like to see it. This is what they say, the Mayhews, how they are, and while I don’t always understand, I could never tire of any of it.
My grandmother pours, puffs, tips, licks the drips from the edge of the saucer. It looks strange and dirty and I’m glad no one else sees her do it. Tea should be left to cool in the cup, I told her once. Only once.
It’s Friday afternoon but it can’t be Sunday night soon enough. Watching Countdown, knowing Evie and Gayle and almost every other kid at school will be watching it too. Sometimes, before Evie’s Sunday night call, I’ll wrap one of my mother’s scarves around my neck, slide a gerbera from the garden behind my ear, or pull on a beanie, the only hats we have. One time, gloves. I never tell Evie I do this, but it makes me feel grown up, sophisticated. More worthy of her somehow.
In a bottle on a shelf are jacks JG once gave me. Old bones—real ones, not the bright pieces of plastic I’ve seen other kids use. I hadn’t really fancied playing with them but I could see my grandfather wanted me to take them, as though giving me something special. The knuckles were big and chunky, impossible to trap on the back of my hands, greasy too, and I realised they were probably once in a stew, long ago when JG was little. My toys—bits of dead cow or sheep—sucked clean of their meat and set aside to be used in a game. Toys are for babies, JG always says. Waste-a-money.
I remember sliding my fingers under the bottom of my shirt, shovelling the jacks back into the bottle, the object of the game ever since being never to touch them again. A small bag of something, dry and crumbly, has been stuffed into the bottle on top of the bones. This place is full of such jars and tins, stacked and crammed and caulked with grime. Old screws, nails, bolts, rings and hooks, washers, eyelets, shoelaces. Broken, stretched, bent, it is all held onto, nothing tossed out. Things are sometimes repaired but rarely replaced. There is never anything new.
JG pours me a glass of his homemade concoction—lemon juice, sugar, citric acid—barely cold, always weak, but I know he makes it only for me. I drink but I can’t wait to run outside, be with Clemmie. As soon as I got out of the car, he could smell the Aberdeen sausage in my pocket—monster-thick slabs of it today, as though hacked by a giant with an axe. I had to run inside quickly to save us both.
Clemmie’s already copped it this week. Yesterday he slipped free of the yoke and escaped the yard. But JG tracked him down, as he always does, bringing the dog home upside down like a pig on a spit—two paws gripped in each of his hands—slamming him onto the ground, beating him with a chain, Grandma rushing out—Easy John, easy—before JG turned the chain on her. I watched all this, my legs and arms useless clackety sticks, my dumb mouth pulled wide but silent.
I finish my drink as JG unpacks my dirt-brown port—removing my brown-papered exercise books, my brown-papered maths text, my brown-papered homework diary, the wax paper from my sandwich, wadded up neatly around the peel of a sugar banana. Wasting food is a sin, a deadly one—Worse than pride!— and JG must have proof I’ve eaten my lunch. So, as the other kids head off to skip and hopscotch and Come Over, Red Rover, and once Clemmie’s meat treat is well hidden away—under a waistband or the tongue of my shoe—my rubbish is composed, painstakingly, ready for its afternoon inspection.
JG wipes out my school case with a damp cloth, dries it again before placing everything back inside. In the morning he will restock my lunch box with fruit from the garden, a sandwich with meat Grandma has cooked, a flask of frozen cordial wrapped in an old pillowcase. Before bed he will clean my brown leather shoes, apply a little polish with a rag, buff them until they gleam, until everything about me glints in the school day sun. Queen Gene my mother sometimes calls me, an uncertain look on her face, a soothing Moselle in her hand. Doesn’t stop Mark McIver, the Connelly twins too, calling me ‘a dirty Nolan’ every chance they get.
I have a little time to myself before I must start on my homework. JG tells me he has to go out, that I’m to find something in the garden for afternoon tea. The latest hand of ripe bananas hangs under the house; I can help myself. ‘Or there’s the custard apples,’ he reminds me. ‘Use the spoon on the tank if—’
‘Sshhh!’ Grandma, from her planet in the sitting room. ‘Sshh!’
I rinse and dry my glass, skip down the back steps. Clemmie waits for me at the back door, his rump curling in a bid for a scratch. JG heads up the hill to the far corner of the property, disappearing soon enough down the dead-end lane that spills into Wilston Road. Being Friday, he’ll be heading to the TAB, to the pub, to both.
As Clemmie and I make our way down the yard, I reach into my pocket, break off niblets of sausage and slip them to him as we walk. He swallows my crimes, gratefully and without chewing. We pass rows of little wooden crucifixes with ‘radish’, ‘turnip’, ‘carrot’ pencilled on them in JG’s unschooled hand, sitting down at the bottom of the paddock near the gate to the The Front House, where I sometimes live with my mother.
‘Mine, like….bleh!’ calls José from his garden, his thumbs and forefingers making small circles, his face the rubbery droop he knows always makes me giggle. My grandparents’ neighbour, JG calls him Joe the Wog, Joe the Dago. Smiling his gap-toothed grin, he points at the passionfruit vine that blankets the chainwire, heavy with purpling fruit. ‘But yous, like … ba-boom!’ his fingers splayed wide.
I gave José some of JG’s passionfruit once. Only once.
‘See-cret, sí?’ he nods and winks, tapping his cloth cap. ‘See-cret? To make grow?’
José laughs and moves on, tending his own patch. I wave back, trying not to think of the ‘secret’—the ox hearts and sheep livers JG buries deep in the soil, blood-feeding his trades, the living things he swaps for bets and smokes and bags of severed legs for Grandma’s stew. The fruits and vegetables made plump and juicy by a compost of dogs —Flying Duke, Jasper Jay—some of them only pups, heads flattened by a shovel because they played and tumbled, the trick bunny too quick, like the bookies, making off with JG’s hard-earned. Gordie Boy. Gone. Halo Harry, Belter Black. One by one, tossed into the pit, into the bloat-full belly of JG’s garden. Me, after school, spearing through the shed doors, only to slump in front of one empty kennel after another, brawn turning liquid in my sock.
No use of a dog that don’t rail.
Clemmie nudges my hands, willing a pat. I scratch his chin, stroke his wiry beard, run my fingers over his finely veined ears. He tries to rest his face in my lap, but the yoke, a nasty tangle of elbows, bangs against my knees.
Grandma first brought Clemmie home on a Tuesday, a strip of mewling orange fur left in a bag outside the Methodist hall. Tuberculosis Tuesday, but a happy, slow stroll home with an all-clear set of lungs and a pup of potluck breeding. Just a pet this time, she decided. An ordinary mutt. She named him after her grandfather, Clement Scarborough DeWitt, who died in a flood, aged ninety-eight. Cradling the dog to her chest, she prayed to the Holy Mother for a long life—for Clemmie if not for them both. She shared all this as we ate jam sponge, the new and ordinary puppy asleep in a crate. Rinsing our plates, she also let me know she’d drown the bugger herself if I breathed so much as a word of what she’d just said to JG.
Clemmie traps a fallen persimmon between his front paws. He licks at the sweet-slurping flesh as I run my fingers under the yoke, scarred skin where his hair should be.
In the evenings when she gets home from work, my mother sometimes comes up the hill to collect me. If she’s had a run-in at the office, bested someone, she’ll sit down with Grandma and tell her all about it. There’s always lots of I saids and she saids, he saids. Sometimes I count them. She and Grandma might have a cup of tea. My mother is the only person Grandma really talks to anymore. One steamy, bug-thick night, I counted forty-nine saids by Miriam the secretary, Clive the rep, and my mother, but Mother had by far the most. My mother always has the most.
Other days she’ll phone just before closing time and tell Grandma she’s tired, she’s had a bad day, could JG bring ‘Missy’ down. Missy is me. Missy when my mother’s in a bad mood, a sad mood, got a headache. When Nev doesn’t show up, or Tony, or Phil. When someone’s said this or that, looked down their nose. Missy must always be wary, check herself, quick to flatter, even quicker to duck. Sometimes my mother doesn’t come home at all, doesn’t think to call and as the hours pass, things begin to fall heavily from JG’s hands. Grandma hovers on the porch, scanning for lights in The Front House, saying Steady John, steady until he swears or lunges at her. She shrinks away then, my grandmother, her hands in front of her, limp, like broken paws, and her shoulders seize, sharp, bony, one so much higher than the other as though half of her is melting.
Those nights I eat tea with my grandparents, have my bath here, try to sleep on the settee as the doorways become frightened eyes, become damaged, wailing mouths, as dark shapes gather, crouching in corners, their breath butcher-red.
I look around. JG is never gone for long. I remember Evie’s first and only visit to this house on the hill. She didn’t know what the yoke was, only stared at the ugly wooden contraption. And though she said nothing, the horror on her face, the distaste, dropped through me like ice water.
‘It stops him running off,’ I tried to explain. ‘He scrambles under the fences, or tries to jump, mostly at night. Pop says if you have a dog, you can’t let it run amok in everyone else’s place.’
Evie had looked at Clemmie so sadly but pulled back her hand when he offered his nose for a pat. She dared not touch him, the way you wouldn’t dare touch a brain in a bottle, or a chick with two beaks. as though he were something in a deadbeat museum, macabre and repellent.
I’d been angry at Clemmie that day. Why couldn’t he be a good dog, not run off all the time and force JG to use the yoke? Why did everything about my family have to be explained: why I don’t have a father, why I spend more time with my grandparents, so much older than everyone else’s, than with my own mother, clack clacking between two houses, neither one of them my home. Why my shoes are always so shiny, my sandshoes so white, my school port so square and clean. Why I never get tuckshop lunch like everyone else. Why no one comes to visit more than once.
Lifting the dog’s shackled head, I hold his face to mine. One of his eyes is sore and closed from yesterday’s beating. ‘I’m sorry I have bad thoughts, Clemmie.’
And I begin working away at the bolts.
Just for a while I want him to be free, to savour the sticky fruit and clean his face with a drag through the grass. ‘Forgive me, red boy? I love you.’ I kiss the top of his head. ‘Buen chico, buen Clemmie,’ I say, the way José has taught me.
The moment the yoke is off, Clemmie abandons the fruit and flips onto his back, squirming about in the thick grass, indulging in a long scratch. His rump and shoulders hoist from side to side in a lying-down dance. Next, he runs in circles then cuts loose at full speed, streaking like a rabbit across one garden bed after another. At the fence on José’s side, he turns in an almost-somersault, and sails back over the boxed beds, one or two lightning-quick skips in between before launching himself once more into the air. He is showing off, and I cheer him on, quietly: Clemm-ie! Clemm-ie! He darts back to me, drops to a low bow at my feet, panting, stump wagging.
If only Evie could see this. Clemmie and me, having fun, being ordinary.
The late afternoon southeaster feels heavy, strangely silent. The sound of nothing. But nothing is ever nothing. The hinges are difficult to realign and my hands feel thick and stiff, like tubes. All in your head, says Mother. I know I must be thorough, take my time. ‘Don’t worry, Clemmie,’ I tell the dog in a silly puppet-mouth voice. ‘I hate my hinges too.’
But my heart pounds, trying to kick its way out of me, out of trouble. I’m not certain the yoke is secure. Goosebumps prick my scalp like so many valiant, dying bees. Even if it doesn’t come off, JG will notice. Bees, bull ants, plagues of them under my skin. JG misses nothing. All of me is nettle and sting. Any moment I might burst open, top to tail, my charred insides thrust up and out like a split sausage.
Clemmie cannot escape. If he does, JG will be off after him—Bastard mongrel bastard—the broken-off handle of a rake in one hand, a pair of gumboots to protect his feet from the kicking that goes on until neither one of them can stand, until a hind leg is held up off the ground for weeks.
‘Buen chico,’ I say to Clemmie. ‘Buen chico. Te amo,’ I say again, hand-tubes still tightening, untightening, testing. ‘Te amo. Te amo mucho,’ like a decade of the rosary. I’ve taken so long to refasten the yoke Clemmie lies down on his side. I called out to Lucia once, José’s wife—Hola! Como está, señora?— and she raised her hand and smiled. I didn’t care if I was saying it right. I knew it didn’t matter. Later, JG said, ‘What’d you say to Fat Lucy? Talkin wog now?’ his hand too heavy and too long on my shoulder, black and yellow fingers in the mirror for weeks.
‘Homework time,’ I tell Clemmie, checking the yoke once more. But the dog stays where he is, his belly full, worn out from his romp, dozing off. I head up the hill alone.
The screen door wheezes open, its routine protest, but the house isn’t right. Quite the imagination, says Mother. The meat simmers on the stove, plink plink. But where is the clink of the black sauce bottle, the grind and scrape of the cornflour paste, the clunk clunk of Grandma’s spoon on the pot? JG won’t be far off and his tea must be ready. Up I go, one step, another, clackety clack, deeper into it, into the stew, its groping cling, into the silence.
Nothing is ever nothing.
She sits at the end of the kitchen table. Potato and choko skins, celery leaves and taproot strings, apple cores, peel, pods—so much fester and scrap piled on the top of her head, flung across her meagre chest, the thin rods of her collarbone, pouching in her aproned lap. A prank, a bit of slapstick, except for the bloody film looping from my grandmother’s chin, dribbling to the floor with a plop and a splat. Except for the empty scrap bucket swinging from JG’s fist.
‘Oh, girl.’ Grandma’s voice is tiny and dry, her lips a white gagging crust. ‘What have you done?’
Trickle trickle melts the mess. Plink plink plink, says the dull metal pot, chunks of dead beast begging, trembling inside.
‘If a girl tells eight lies every day,’ says JG, ‘for a whole week, how many lies does she tell?’
The taste of soft broken spine fills my mouth.
‘How many lies, girl?’
Surges of sick, hot and hateful, slash the back of my throat. ‘Fifty-six.’
If she were coming home, my mother would be here by now. But it’s Friday, and Vic says, Happy hour, Lonnie? Thommo’s got a new car. How ‘bout a spin?
‘Wh … what have you done?’ My grandmother shudders. ‘What have you—’
‘And if a girl gets eight whacks for every letter of her lying bitch name, how many would a Mary Gene Nolan get?’
‘One hundred and four,’ I reply quickly, as though speed and accuracy might count for something. ‘Eight thirteens are one hundred and four.’ But nothing counts for anything, and the dark creatures, circling, know that already.
‘She’s quick, this one,’ JG smiles. ‘A right scholar.’
He goes to the refrigerator, pulls out the loaf of rolled and crumbed meat.
‘Hungry?’ he asks, the plate jabbed forward. ‘Oh no, that’s right. Mumma’s sausage in’t good enough for Queen Gene.’ He’s always called his wife Mumma.
Mumma? I said once, still so little JG sat me on his hip. Not Mumma. Gram-ma.
The slab of sausage drops to the table in front of my grandmother. She winces, and it doesn’t stop—head nodding, knees bouncing, hips jolting her forward and back in her chair. Hers is the face of an old stricken doll, shamed by her malfunction.
JG holds a cleaver above the cut end, pauses. ‘Whoops,’ he says, ‘don’t want none-a-that bad bit.’
He hacks at the uncut end, tearing away the monster-chunks I found in my sandwich, just as he’d torn at it this morning or late last night, at the bad bit, knowing it would find its way, as my lunch always does, to our potluck pup.
‘So, scholar,’ he says, chewing, the meat a grey and pink clot jerking and wheeling across his tongue. ‘How much-a-this stuff d’ya reckon we’d need to kill a rat?’ He snatches the bottle of jacks, pulls out the crumpled bag. Bait pellets, crushed. Spreadable.
I see now what the cancer and the doctors have left of his mouth, less a capital letter than a sump, a bogged-up sinkhole that may or not hold. And I know I won’t ever again confuse what’s coming.
‘Say … a thirty-pound rat?’
And my jaw falls open with a clank, hinges snapped, my puppet mouth wide, too dumb even to scream.