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Verge 2012: Inverse

ONCE, FROM UP THERE

Catherine Noske

Once, her father took her; up the mountain. It was summer, and they hiked. Up there, looking out … oh, she was just a child, then. But up there, looking out, the whole world was a tapestry of colours: gold and yellow and dun-brown, green and grey fading into the purple and blue of the hills. Her hills. That is what she thought, up there that day. The blue and purple of her hills, a mass of swollen bruises. Strange thought, for a child. But wrapped in the arms of the hills, the world was safe and warm and beautiful. Endless. Wonderful. They drank from a spring on the way down, crystal water trickling hidden from a rock, and it felt like a miracle.

She dreams about that walk. She wakes sometimes knowing she went back there in her sleep. They stopped at a pub on the way home. There were men there, three of them, friends; they drank beer with her father. They talked about football, the weather. She has no idea who the men were, but she remembers them being happy, laughing, joking. They sat outside. Her father bought Barney Banana ice-creams. Beer and Barney Bananas. They left when the sun started to go down, and she fell asleep at the table. She must, she thinks, have been quite young. Even now, though, the smell of beer can take her back there.

She thinks about it at the kitchen table that morning. She can hear the baby yowling in his cot, but she lets him be for a moment or two, lets herself sit and dream in the warmth of the watery sun. Max has gone. He whistled as he walked out the door, she thinks. She can imagine him, spinning his keys around a finger, happy, confident. She inhales slowly, tries to swallow the lump in her throat. She wonders if he noticed that she was awake when he got up. She doesn’t think so. She has become quite adept at feigning sleep. The baby draws breath and his crying gathers an octave. She smiles gently. She loves her baby. He reminds her of all that is good in her world, the important things. He is easy to satisfy. His tiny hands knead at her when she feeds him, and he smells of milk and soap. She loves her baby. She stands, she stretches, and she goes to him. Smile, she thinks. A new day.

When she has fed and cleaned and dressed him, the baby is happy again. She leaves him closeted safe in his playpen, singing strings of meaningless words on the patchwork rug that once was her mother’s, and shuts herself in the bathroom. The steam from the bath draws itself in artistic spirals along the length of the mirror, momentarily fades and instantly draws again. She stretches herself slowly into the water and closes her eyes. The hills, she thinks … but they are gone, they won’t come back, she can’t make them, and instead she forces herself to run her hands down her sides, down each arm and assess the damage. The bruises are angry reds and blues fading to a mottled yellow and green, her neck, one arm, one side, one she doesn’t remember on her thigh. The water is uncomfortably hot, and she sweats gently; she can feel it beginning to bead on her forehead. She runs the cold tap and it burbles in, burbles like the baby. Sitting there, she doesn’t know what to do. He will be home by six.

She gets dressed, after lunch. She puts on a dress with long sleeves and a row of buttons that march their way up from the small of her back. It makes her feel young, this dress, and she loves it. With the baby on one hip she is beautiful and light and everything she should be. She smiles. Somehow, no one expects an abused woman to wear a pretty dress. She puts lipstick on, and a touch of mascara. She straps the baby in and they drive together into the town. She talks to him as they go, tells him the colours and the names of the trees, the flowers, the animals and she is almost happy. She can’t remember if the white ones are ghost gums or silver gums, but she tells herself it doesn’t matter. Her father would have known. The row of poplars down the Hendersons’ drive is a dirty yellow against the grey sky. Banks of clouds scud softly across above them, pregnant with rain. By the time she is driving down the main street the morning sun has disappeared into a niggling drizzle, and she is wishing she had worn something heavier than her dress. There is an oilskin in the back. It is stiff and mildewed, and it smells of the dogs, but she pulls it on like a veil over her and the baby, and giggles and coos at the look on his face as awkwardly she shuffles them into the store.

She pauses inside the door to wriggle out from under the coat. At the sound of the bell, Maggie looks up from her magazine, and bustles her wide hips over to take the baby.

‘Pretty dress today, love! You got sommink planned for that man of yours?’

She smiles and flicks demure eyes up at the older lady. Play the game, she tells herself. The oilskin drips a pattern on the door mat.

‘Fresh veggies, Maggie? And something for dessert … you got any fruit?’

‘Tins, honey, or fresh?’

‘Oh, tins will do!’ She says, and tries not to mind as the older woman bounces her baby up and down, up and down on the counter.

‘Down the back. I’ll mind your little bundle,’ Maggie says, and smiles at him with a warmth that makes her eyes crinkle. Poor lonely old girl, she thinks, and drifts off down the crooked aisle to find the tins. They are dusty, and hidden behind some forgotten packets of sweet biscuits. There is a choice of pineapple or peach, and the anxiety she has been holding off creeps up on her as she tries to decide. Pineapple. Peach? Pineapple with ice-cream. She shakes herself gently, sets her mouth.

‘And how is your Max? He’s a treasure, that one. And that game last week! Dunno what we’d do without ‘im.’ Maggie calls.

‘Oh, he’s fine. Working hard right now.’ She calls back, automatically. Pineapple then, and she goes to find some ice-cream to go with it. The vegetables are in a wire basket up at the front, a measly selection of carrots and turnips and potatoes. She should have gone into Warrnambool, shouldn’t have sat in the bath, should have made time. She finds some wilted broccoli down below, and makes up for it with plenty of the potatoes. She sighs. It will do. It’s better than frozen veg, at least. It will be fine, she tells herself, and dumps it all on the counter beside her gurgling, chuckling baby. Really, she thinks, as Maggie adds it up, she must start her own veggie garden. A little one wouldn’t be too hard. She swings the baby up and onto her hip without thinking, onto her bad side, and she gasps and stiffens as he kicks his feet against her bruises. She freezes, eyes wide. A fall, she thinks, it was a fall; but Maggie doesn’t notice, and she breathes deep and shifts the baby to her other hip.

‘Seventeen fifty, my dear.’ Maggie says, piling it all into an old plastic bag.

‘Put it on the tab, could you please?’ She says, draping the oilskin over them again.

‘Will do!’ Maggie calls, as the bell jangles behind them, and she shuffles out.

She finds herself singing to the baby as she walks down the street, we’re going to have a dinner, we’re going to have a dinner, and she wonders if she is beginning to go mad. Mr. Johnson from the feed-store nods and smiles at her as she goes past, and she smiles back. The drizzle stops, suddenly, and she lets the oilskin slide off her head down onto her shoulders, feels it settle there, and tucks it in around the baby so only his face is showing. She stops and drops the plastic bag in the car, and runs a furtive hand once more down her bruises. Sissy, she tells herself, gasping like that. They aren’t that bad. She wonders what colour they will be by the time she gets home. She considers dropping the oilskin too, but it is cool, not at all the sunny day she was hoping for, and she doesn’t want the baby to get cold. In the end she leaves it on, draped around her like a great, leathery cape; a protective hide between herself and the sky. It feels heavy, today. The clouds are building to blue and purple. It will rain tonight, she thinks, bucket down, probably. She wonders if Max will be wet when he comes home, and if they will finish up early. She pauses in front of the coffee shop, and sniffs delicately at the smell of the beans and pastry. No, no time, better to head home and get organized, she thinks. Bread then, and off. She can stop at the butchers on the way.

She has plenty of time, in the end. The roast is in the oven and almost done by the time he comes in. He smells of sheep, and the mud has clawed its way through the grease on his hands to settle under his fingernails and in the cracks of his skin. He looks good, though, despite it all – even muddy and wet he is attractive. He always was. He spends half an hour in the shower and comes out damp and red-skinned, clean and smelling of lavender soap. She has the dinner almost ready, she is just finishing the gravy, and they eat at the kitchen table almost in silence. He is in a good mood, she thinks. He smiles and winks at her, and plays with the baby as she does the washing up. It is fine, she thinks, fine. The relief whistles through her like a drug. By the time they go to bed, she is verging on euphoric; she laughs out loud like a teenager when he takes her nighty off.

The next two days are like that. Her bruises fade, purple to green to yellow. She watches them in the bath each morning, traces the patterns they make, tries to see them as beautiful. Once upon a time, bruises were something to be proud of, something to show off. If she lets herself, sometimes she can work her way back to that, that concept. Imagine her way back into her fifteen-year-old head and peel back a t-shirt to show a bruise to a friend. Or imagine showing it, at least. Wink. How tough am I? Laugh. Ignore the little voice whispering to her, not tough, not tough at all. And each day the tension rises – easy day, busy day, a little anxious by lunchtime, white in the face by the time he gets home. But it is ok, she tells herself. It is normal. They are normal. When she lets herself relax she feels like she is living someone else’s life.

She plans, too. Very carefully. Dinner must be good. Desert is best, he has a sweet-tooth, always has had. Everything should always be ready, in place. And tidy, too; like his mother’s home. She is careful about that one. And she has her tricks. It makes her feel guilty, thinking like this, but she can’t help it sometimes. Water his drinks. Wear a pretty dress. Any bad news, make sure the baby is there.

‘Kippa called,’ she says. ‘Can’t play footy this weekend.’

‘Shit,’ he mutters, and the baby stops bouncing in his lap. ‘That’s gonna hurt.’ The baby gurgles, chuckles, hits him on the nose. ‘Oi, tiger, you gonna play forward?’ He laughs. ‘Gonna come help Daddy save the day again?’ She smiles. She breathes. He wouldn’t hurt the child. He would never hurt a child. They can go on like this. They are happy, like this. It feels almost surreal, this life. She lets herself relax, sometimes, for days at a time. A week. Two. It slips, of course. It always does. And then she pays. But until then, until then they are happy, they are ok.

He sleeps late, the next time. Accidentally – she hit the wrong button on the alarm. He holds it in, but she can feel it there, the anger. Simmering, almost. It twists him, slightly, not so you’d notice, but just a little around the mouth. She knows that mouth, has known it as long as she has known him. Before they were married it was just a mouth, just a strange little quirk, a question mark with no question. Now she knows what it means, at least. There is something hard, tight about his face when he looks like that, and it makes the hair on her neck crawl. She starts cleaning, as soon as he is gone.

Dinner is ready by the time she hears his truck. The dogs bay at him from their chains. The house is clean, the baby clean and fed, the fire lit. It is rosy, inside, warm and comfortable; she sits waiting, her stomach tight, her fingers tying invisible knots again and again and again. He parks around the back. She catches a glimpse of him through the kitchen window, and almost cries out with relief. He is limping. Hurt. He will need her. Nothing will happen tonight. Breathe, she thinks, and reassembles her face, removes the laugh, smoothes away the tension. The back door bangs. She forces herself to get up, to rush to him and fuss, pet, worry. He is fine, a big child when hurt. She cares for him as tenderly as the baby.

It is his ankle, again, that he hurt; and they lose the football. She sees him on the bench at three-quarter time, snarling as he wraps layer on extra layer of tape around it. The baby chuckles and points.

‘Daddaadadadaad,’ he says, and laughs.

‘Yes, darling,’ she whispers, ‘Dad, Dad, Dad.’

He almost clobbers the young forward replacing Kippa in the final quarter. She sees it coming and looks away. As they walk off the field, heads hung, the locals sigh and wrap their scarves a little tighter. It was a dirty game, they mutter. Coulda used Kipp. She looks around at them all and wants to cry. Why do you care? She wants to ask. Why does it matter so very, very much? She watches for him, as they come out of the showers. Men, boys, friends, burly shoulders and overweight tradies. He is last. He has been sitting there, she knows, just sitting, not talking. He looks across at her, and his face is a storm-front. Smile, she thinks, sympathetic smile; he looks away. There are no speeches, today. They all sit at the bar and drink. She can’t stand it, soon. The smell, the stupidity, the depression. She leaves as soon as she thinks he will let her.

‘Going to put the little one down for the night,’ she says, and he nods and kisses her on the cheek. He isn’t there, she thinks, and it sends a little shiver through her.

‘I’ll be at the pub.’

‘You won’t be too late?’ She asks, but he just looks at her, blank, empty, and doesn’t answer. She feels it coming, again, as she straps baby into his car-seat. It shivers down the back of her neck like a premonition. Tonight, she thinks. It will be tonight. She is buzzing by the time she drives out of the oval. Plan. She needs a plan. She gets home and feeds the baby, and tries to think.

‘Carefully,’ she says, and he smiles at her, waves his arms. He is beautiful, this little child of hers, and precious, so precious … She will give him the cough syrup. He smiles again, and she smiles back. It hurts, almost. The tension of it builds in her stomach like acid. Carefully, she thinks again, carefully; and she tries desperately to convince herself it will be fine.

He is late home. It is gone two when she hears the car, someone yelling at him, his bumbling and growling as he opens the back door. He is in the kitchen. She lies frozen, wraps the doona a little tighter, tries to pretend herself to sleep again. Please, she is thinking. Please, please. The fridge door slams. A bottle breaks, and she winces. There is a loud scraping noise, she can imagine him falling over a chair. He yells, suddenly, inarticulate almost. There is more breaking glass, and a cracking noise she can’t identify. Don’t wake, little one, she is thinking; and God, please, please let the cough syrup be strong enough. He is muttering again, and she feels her breathing accelerate. There are footsteps, tiles onto carpet … he is there.

‘Know your ‘wake,’ he slurs. ‘Thin’ you can jus’ ignore me?’ And so it starts, she thinks, and bites her lip. ‘Bitch, I’m talking to you,’ he says, louder, and stumbles to the bed, pulls her over by one shoulder. He is bleeding from one hand. ‘I’m talking to you …’ She looks at him, squarely. Bastard, she is thinking. Bastard. But it is no good. It is too late. There is nothing she can do now. The questions starts, then the accusations. Gently, girl, she thinks, and keeps her eyes down. It is not that bad, in the end. Not really. It has been worse. At least she knows how to handle him, now, how to talk him around. He cries, afterwards, the violence all spent; and she holds his shaggy, great head in her lap. The tears soak through the cotton of her nighty, leave a large, round wet patch down the front. When he tries to kiss her neck, pulls at the nighty, she just closes her eyes and lets him.

She dreams that night. She is up the mountain again, but her father is not there, and it is not afternoon, there is no golden light, no sunshine and beer. It is dark, shadowy, everything below her is deep red and purple, but still she can see so far! Higher, go higher, her blood tells her, go higher, and she is scrambling, running, clawing her way up; the air is cold and free on her face. Go higher, but there is no higher to go, she is there, she is at the top, and all of it, her hills, all of it is spread out dark and alive beneath her. The hills are bruises. The hills are like bruises.

Verge 2012: Inverse

   by Samantha Clifford and Rosalind Mcfarlane