Type
Fiction

Porcelain

In the mornings the silences are round and smooth like eggs. They happen before she’s fully awake, before she registers the sound of Graham’s breath, or the movement of the children in their rooms. Inside those silences, her thoughts are warm; they are long, uninterrupted lines. Until the day starts and her good intentions scatter, rolling away from her like coins.

It is Saturday. Graham takes the kids swimming while she makes muffins for their school lunches. She keeps an eye on the clock as its hands shudder towards twelve. But she loses track of time and Monica and Sam wander inside, in a haze of chlorine, their wet towels dragging on the floor, leaving trails of moisture behind them. Until they abandon them in little wet humps on the tiles.

Monica stands next to the oven, watching Allison for a moment. From the corner of her eye, Allison can see Monica’s outline. It’s always a surprise, how small Monica is, when her impact on Allison feels adult-sized. There is an intense concentration on Monica’s face when she observes her, as though what she is really doing is listening to Allison’s thoughts.

Sometimes Allison tries to smile, to smooth over the wrinkles in her happiness and pretend they don’t exist. But today is one of those days when the only thing she has for herself is silence. In those silences, she’s someone who is kinder, who finds it easier to smile.

There is a quiet fury to her movements when she cooks, a solemn need to get things done, as though there might eventually be an end to these tasks she imposes on herself. Once I was someone, she sometimes thinks as she cuts, stirs, pours. But even that doesn’t capture it. The sadness has more to do with what she might have been and how those possibilities have shut in front of her like politely closed doors.

Monica looks at the muffins cooling on the wire rack and back at her.

‘Could I have one, Mum?’

‘Oh, Monica. I’m saving them for lunches.’ She hears the sound of her voice, the hardness, the need to assert control. She feels large and grotesque. ‘Okay, go on. But only one.’

‘They’re small.’ Monica regards them.

‘They’re for little lunch.’

‘Okay.’ Monica skips away. There is a buoyancy about the way Monica carries herself no matter what’s said to her. Allison can never be sure where this confidence has come from.

When she finishes the final batch, what Allison really wants to do is run her finger along the inside of the bowl and lick it clean. That’s what she’s been looking forward to all morning; it’s what she looks forward to most Saturday mornings at about this time. But now Graham is standing there, she can’t do it; it seems that by doing that she would be giving into a need she doesn’t want to admit she has. She takes the mixing bowl and dunks it into the sink where it floats before sinking.

Graham flicks on the kettle and takes a muffin from the tray.

‘They’re for the kids’ lunches,’ she says in a kind of song. He opens his eyes wide and takes a bite, nodding his head as though to indicate approval.

As he is making a coffee for himself, he takes the lid off the sugar bowl and scoops out a teaspoon of crystals. They’d brought the bowl back with them from Denmark on the only trip to Europe they’d ever made, before Sam was born. It’s fine porcelain, white and blue and soft to touch, like bone. Allison dropped it when she was taking it out of the box the day they got back and stood over the bench with the broken pieces in her hands, their sharp edges nestled into her fingers. She stood there looking at it for what must have been minutes but later that moment seemed to expand into years.

Graham found some special glue at the hardware store that holds ceramic together and spent the early hours of her first labour gluing it back together. He stayed in the garage while she paced the hallway puffing and groaning, with a hand against the wall. She was relieved not to have to make eye contact with him while that pain unzipped her from inside.

 

Outside, Monica balances on the edge of the garden bed. She holds her arms out as she walks, as though on a tightrope. She can do this, go off and entertain herself, not like Sam who needs a witness to everything he does. Sometimes Allison doesn’t see Monica for an hour or more at a time.

Last week Allison realised the house was quiet and it had been more than an hour since she’d last seen Monica. She walked to Monica’s bedroom and watched through the door as Monica played with her dolls.

‘Good night, beautiful girl,’ Monica crooned. ‘Nighty-night, little sweetheart,’ she said to another. It made Allison sad to watch this. She didn’t know where those words came from; it wasn’t the sort of language they used in their home.

 

Sam wanders into the kitchen with his Lego car. He wheels it across the cupboard and up over the bench. He looks at the muffins and at Allison.

‘Could I have one, Mum?’ And there is a look in his eyes that she almost can’t stand, as though he believes she might actually refuse his request.

‘Of course you can.’ She passes one down to him.

Recently, Sam’s been in trouble at school. Allison was summoned there earlier in the week. It was the end of the day and his teacher was packing up the classroom. Her name was Jane and she was wearing a pair of denim overalls. Jane looked tired and Allison recognised a woman being crushed by the pressure of too many demands.

They sat down at her desk in the corner of the classroom. It was Jane’s only space in the room, that hollow rectangle of wood.

‘He hurts other children,’ Jane said. And after a pause, ‘When he doesn’t get his own way.’

Something inside Allison shifted, like a sudden realignment in her bones. She assumed it had been something to do with his inability to concentrate for long periods of time, how easily he was distracted from the task at hand. The way he’d rather be off doing things.

Outside, children were sitting in rows with their legs crossed, waiting for their buses to arrive. She had left Sam outside with a friend and they were kicking the ball between them.

‘What does he do?’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘I mean, in what way does he hurt other children?’ Allison needed to know exactly what was happening before she could decide what to do. She needed to have a picture of it in her mind.

‘Sometimes he kicks. Sometimes he bites; he does tend to pick on girls.’ Jane couldn’t look at Allison directly when she disclosed this last fact.

Through the window, the play equipment was visible. There was a little patch of dirt at the end of the slide where the grass had turned bald from the trampling of children’s feet.

Allison was deciding how to react but the truth was she felt that these allegations were criticisms, not of Sam, but of her.

‘The school tries to intervene early in bullying situations,’ Jane said and sat up straighter. Jane reminded Allison of her sister, Susie, the way she would rather say nothing than fight.

‘So, what are you going to do?’ Allison asked, neutrally. She wanted to sound Jane out, whether Sam would be suspended. She was calculating whether they could afford the fees for a different school.

‘What am I going to do?’ Jane repeated and sighed but didn’t let go of all the air.

Allison looked out the window. Sam’s friend had left and he was kicking the ball against the wall. She could hear the thwack of it hitting the bricks at full speed.

Allison could tell by the way Jane was sitting there, by her exhaustion, that she didn’t want to have to do anything. That all Allison needed to do was turn up.
‘If you could just impress on Sam the importance of resolving conflicts constructively. And respecting personal space.’

Allison nodded and left the classroom. She waited in the vestibule where the children hung their bags on hooks. She picked up Sam’s backpack. Every time she opened it, she could smell something rotting, but whenever she emptied it out, she could never find the source.

 

On Sunday afternoon, she helps Sam and Monica with their hats for the Easter parade. For Sam, she tapes two cardboard ears to the side of his cap.

‘How’s this?’

He looks up.

‘Thanks, Mum.’ He goes back to watching TV.

But Monica wants to make the yellow bird she’s seen in the book in the school library. Monica always wants something different and Allison has to suppress that part of her that wants to take Monica aside and tell her life would be easier for her if she could find a way to fit in.

 

Allison hadn’t expected to feel so much love for Sam. Every time she picked him up, the feeling of his body against her produced surges of it. It frightened her the way it came, the intensity of it, the blindness. She had to restrain herself from her physical urges to hold and kiss him too much.

Then Monica arrived and she felt that love all over again. But with her daughter the love was more of an ache, the gentle reminder of some forgotten pain. Being around her daughter was like feeling the sunshine in winter but she found that too difficult to ever say.

In those months after Monica’s birth, before Allison went back to work, there was a gardener who came to their house once a week. There was something about him. She kept peering out through the kitchen towards him as she sterilised bottles and stood there shamefully while the breast pump stimulated and sucked her nipples. She watched his body, his thick legs as he heaved the lawnmower through the yard.

Once, despite the fatigue and the pureeing and the watch she had to keep on Sam when he went near his sister, she made that gardener an iced tea and took it to him in the garden, with the napkin twisted elegantly around the middle, the way it had been served to her once in a café in Sydney. They stood together talking about the yard as he sipped politely. Grass clippings were stuck to his socks.

She looked at that man’s thick arms and allowed herself to fantasise about what that man might do to her. She wanted him to pin her against the bed. To press her face into the pillow while her screams were absorbed into its folds. What she wanted was to give definition and shape to a cruelty that she believed lived inside her.

 

She stays up late that night working on Monica’s hat. She cuts into an old cushion with a pair of scissors and the feathers drift up. She dyes them yellow with food colouring and pastes them one at a time to the cardboard hat. Everyone in the house has gone to bed and she can hear Graham snoring faintly from their room.

As she works, she keeps thinking about Monica in the backyard that afternoon. She’d started tap-dancing lessons and Allison watched her move around the pavers, through the glass. She held her arms out at chest height and her little feet shuffled backwards and forwards to their own rhythm. The voice of Monica’s dance teacher floated into Allison’s head as she watched: forward together and back together and.

Monica looked both happy and sad, like a character from a silent film. Outside the breeze had started to pick up — it was the beginning of a southerly and as it ran through the fig leaves they clattered together like porcelain. Monica looked beautiful there, moving with ease.

Allison works methodically, carefully; she wants Monica to wear this hat. For Monica to be seen at her school, by the students, her teachers and the other parents. For it to stand in the place of all the things Allison finds too difficult to say.

When she’s finished, she sits the hat on the dining table. Everything about it is yellow. On her way to the bedroom, she looks out of the kitchen window and in the darkness of the yard sees two lambent eyes. They stay still for a moment then bounce over the grass. She opens the back door and a mild breeze lifts her skirt. As she walks, the grass flicks water droplets up her legs.

Monica’s bunny, Gertrude, is sitting on the edge of the garden, sniffing the chard. Allison doesn’t want to startle it or make it run under the house where it sometimes stays for days. As she approaches, it stops and sniffs the air. Its long ears droop comically over its face. When she scoops it up, its body goes limp; it hasn’t even tried to escape. The whole of it, the warm bundle of fur throbs in her hands. She presses it closer to her chest where it quivers and stills.

Allison has a memory of being on her grandparents’ farm as a girl. They were her father’s parents who owned a cattle farm near Maitland. Her grandparents were very poor. When she stayed with them, they once served bread and dripping as a meal.

A man came there once while she was staying, collecting rabbits. He brought ferrets with him in a cage. They were vicious-looking animals, with pointed faces and prominent teeth, their bodies unnaturally long. He told Allison’s grandfather he made a dollar for each rabbit he caught. As a girl, she believed he sold them as pets.

She’d watched that man from a distance, the way he brought the rabbits close to his chest, as though whispering secrets in their long ears and then he’d stretched them out on the grass, one next to the other as though laying them down to rest.

She had forgotten that man, until now. He was a lean man but strong. She remembers his tenderness, as he held the rabbits, the care he took with each animal. She had a feeling, as she watched him, of wanting an embrace like that from that sort of man.

 

Allison arrives late to the Easter Hat parade, as Sam’s class is already moving through the school yard. He is holding hands awkwardly with a boy his age. She ignores the face he pulls as he walks past. In front of her stand two women wearing large, lugubrious sunglasses. The one on the left wears yoga pants. Their ponytails are blonde and tapered. They wave vigorously to their children as they pass.

Monica comes in the last group. She is the most visible child in the parade in her towering hat, leaving a trail of yellow feathers in her wake. She has to tilt her head up to see out from under the rim but her smile is broad and her teeth are little round stubs — she hasn’t lost any yet. Allison feels a swelling, a sudden rush of affection for this beautiful child that has, impossibly, emerged from her.

As Monica passes, Allison watched the woman in front of her nudge the other one. It’s like a chicken exploded on that girl’s head! They snicker behind their manicured hands.

Sam pushes up beside her, tucking himself under her arm, but Allison can’t look away from that woman’s head. There’s a crawling sensation in her heart, as though something in there wants to escape.

They walk back to the car. A pair of bunny ears bounces on the branch of a tree.

As they pass through the school gates, the woman in yoga pants walks ahead of them with her daughter. Allison stares at her.

She turns the key in the ignition and the parking sensor begins to scream. In the rear-view mirror looms a big black car with dark windows. Before she can speak, Sam gets out of the car. In the rearview mirror, Allison sees the woman in yoga pants helping her daughter into the back seat.

She doesn’t hear what Sam says but sees the way he stands. The way he points his finger at that woman, as Allison has done to him so often when she felt she had to put him in his place, that she had to bully him into being good.

She undoes her seatbelt and walks to Sam.

‘I won’t be long,’ the woman says with a tight smile to Sam.

Allison lays her hand on Sam’s shoulder. A kind of whistle comes from her nose as she breathes.

‘Sam.’ She tries to make her tone soothing, even though to her it sounds tinny and false. ‘It’s okay, we’re not in a rush. We can wait until they leave.’ And she forces herself to smile at the woman as she climbs up into her vehicle.

She takes Sam’s hand, walks him back to his side of the car.

 

For the school holidays, Sam brings home a puppet. He has to learn the lines for the performance next term. It’s a strange creature, with an ugly ceramic head. Its face is set into a cruel smile with permanent, hard lines. Whenever he plays with it, he uses a high, irritating voice that sets Allison on edge.

She catches him one afternoon pushing the puppet into Monica’s face while she’s practising her dance routine.

‘No,’ Sam says in his hard, falsetto tone. ‘No, Monica. Don’t do that.’

Monica turns her back to him and continues her dance.

‘No. That’s wrong, Monica.’

‘Sam!’ Allison hisses, inserting herself between her two children. ‘Why are you doing that?’

He looks at her and takes his hand out of the doll.

‘I don’t even know, Mum.’

He walks into the kitchen and takes the milk bottle from the fridge. When he’s finished drinking, there’s a broken circle of milk over his lip, which he wipes away.

Later that night, while everyone is asleep, Allison rises from her bed like a ghost. She drifts into Sam’s room and lifts the puppet from the bedside table. She takes it to the kitchen where the evening light is blue. The puppet smiles back at her, demonic and knowing. Her first instinct is to crack that face against the kitchen bench. Instead she pulls it close and cradles it in her arms.

 

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Gretchen Shirm is the author of a collection of short stories Having Cried Wolf and a novel Where the Light Falls. Her work has been shortlisted for a number of national awards including the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Awards. She is currently working on a novel-in-stories titled The Crying Room.

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