Copyright 2020 Sonny Clarke
There was a soft piercing sting of a mosquito bite as I stood digging my toes into the sand. I have played the moment over in my mind a thousand times. I remember the exact second when the sensation of the needle in my thigh stole my attention away from you. I see it so clearly, how I bore the pain with courage for what seemed like an eternity. I waited for the vampire to fill up and remove its sunken fangs, to get drunk on my young blood and detach. I swallowed and clenched my teeth beneath my lips, a slight quiver of desperation. It was like having chicken pox, the desire to scratch was unbearable. I stood rigidly on the veranda when I was plastered with pink lotion, its muddy cool pastiness supposed to bring relief but soon I was squirming again in crawling agony. I was covered in a thousand tickling ants and I couldn’t stand still. But this wasn’t a case of chicken pox this was the case of my life.
With determination clenched between my teeth, I had been keeping sight of you as you slipped along between the pine trees that lined the shore like frontline soldiers from an ancient war. The sun was bright and my eyes squinted in retaliation. A ghostly image of your body was burnt like scar tissue into my vision and confused me with its tricks. I watched you dip in and out of the dark shadows, your twin phantom skipping along behind you jumping to where ever my eye may land. At times it was hard to tell which was which and I blinked hard to clean my eyes with the tears that had formed. I decided to follow you up onto the shore and I would stop you and ask with meaning - was it really you? I would try to convey all my anguish to you with that one look; try to tell you what I needed you to do. Tell you that I was scared. Then you would look down at me smiling with recognition. It would be something in the colour of my skin or the shape of my cheeks that you would see. You’d ask me how I knew. I would tell you it was your cologne, a powdery musky dew that lingered like the foamy wake left behind by you in the ocean of my life; the smell of star dust in your meteorite trail.
When you were young, handsome and knew no better you made a mistake. You tried to erase all evidence of it thinking you could ignore it out of existence. You tried to dust away your footprints, polish off your fingerprints but that wasn’t enough to ensure your freedom from the crime you had committed. You didn’t know me. I was eight then and I was a spy and to discover your secret identity was my top secret mission. Searching for clues I would sneak ever so carefully into her room and rifle through the mementos of her life before me. Keeping an ear out for the door so I would not be discovered. I’d look through the summer dresses that she’d worn when she was young and didn't have the heart to part with just yet. I loved the clothes she kept of her mothers, funny looking shapes made of strange material. I’d lay for hours curled up on the floor running those fabrics between my fingers an archeologist sifting through black and white pictures hidden in an old bible box. I never saw the bible that had belonged there. There was a picture of our house before I was born, it was taken during the great floods and if I looked up now, high on the walls of the house I could see where she had drawn a line – simple, black and wavy - to show how far up the walls the water had gone - misplaced river water with its salty licking tongue. People around here were proud of those floods and even prouder of the houses that survived them. The line simply said 74 beside it in neat black felt pen and I’d only just found out what that number meant. It was also the year you were washed into her life a plank of driftwood carried by the great wall of water and I imagined a new line running along the wall to show the tide-marks of your time for it had been just as destructive if not more.
One steamy afternoon while I played hooky from school, I extended my search for evidence into the back of her cupboard. As kids we used to pretend we were entering into a magical world as we pushed in past her perfumed clothes to the other side – a world that adults couldn’t see or find. Shoe boxes were transformed into little square creatures that we fought off in search of our missing princess. I wormed my way into the magical realm and poked around, pushing back in the far corners where we were afraid the giant spiders might have hidden. It was dusty and my nose tickled with a sneeze. That’s when I found it. That’s where I found the shirt. It smelled like you. I reached out to the small pile of forgotten washing and lifted the prize. I gathered the soft cotton against my cheek and closed my eyes inhaling the scent like a bloodhound. I smelled musk, spice and a smell I would not recognise until I was a grown woman – a natural odour that came from your body, an odour that identified you as a man, my father. As I sat in mother’s cupboard and clutched that shirt, all my miseries came rushing back to the surface, my spy resolve crumbled and I started to cry.
On the inside of the cupboard door there was a mirror. I sniffled and moved over to gaze at it, drying my eyes with the sleeve of the shirt. I tried to separate the me from the you in the face that stared out at me. Sometimes I felt like my own reflection was a stranger, an entire other person peeking at me from behind some window in another time. The stranger in the mirror had a father but she didn’t have a mother which made sense because all things in the mirror were in reverse. She could see in me all that she was missing from her own world hidden behind that glass. She looked so much like a person that she had never met. I tried to reassure her that our mother was a wonderful person and that mostly I was happy to have her but she couldn’t feel her warmth from inside that cold glass. I reached out and touched the icy cheek of my reflected twin. My warm hand left a moist print on the surface and it sparkled with fragmented light. I tried to find out who you were through the other me. The fine cheek bones, the high forehead, the long fine hands with wide knuckled fingers. These were all things that my mother didn’t wear. I hoped you were a folk singer like the records she used to play. I hoped you were a spy like me; A spy that just couldn’t get home.
Once, while I was sleeping I swore you had snuck in to my house to visit. I caught the dark timbre of your voice in my dreaming ears but I only remembered it when I woke the next day. You had come in the dark incognito to see me and then disappeared again back into the creases that formed around her eyes. You lived in her premature wrinkles and the lushness of her beautiful dark hair that was now falling out, drifting to the carpet like black snow. I was to be quiet when I visited. I was to ask her no more questions about you or about what I wanted for Christmas but as she lay there breathing heavily she turned to me and smiled. She told me that you were tall like me and that’s the gift that you gave me. I wondered how she could stand to look at me and see that I was tall like you.
I stood on the crowded foreshore where my search for you had led. The Jurassic pine trees now bent over the shoreline as if bowing solemnly to the forgotten island prison that loomed fog like in the bay, a brilliant orange sun was drawn to it as if it were a magnet. I remembered a school trip to that island, I imagined the colonial ghosts stalking the small shoreline like caged animals. They were wondering if they could swim the distance without fear of shark attack. They didn’t know that they were already dead and there were no sharks left in the bay.
A few meters from where I stood naked children basked in the sun unashamed of their plumpness. The shing of plastic shovels sounded as they heaved sand into piles called castles by their hopeful builders. Older brothers rioted through these piles trashing them to the ground causing the architects to cry. It was the long, hot days at the end of summer holidays. In just a few weeks we’d all be back at school, in too-big uniforms and a year more responsible than when we had left ; my hunt for you would be put on hold.
A boy kicked at dirt with his toes in boredom. All the holiday games had by now been invented and played. Christmas toys had been unwrapped and loved and discarded or broken. Children now longed to shop for new pencils and writing books to return to the playground for a new year of study. I inhaled the salty spray of the suburb that I was born in. I felt warm and secure. I pretended for a moment that I was grown and didn’t need an adult to look after me. I decided that I would still live here near the waterfront I knew so well. I never wanted to leave. The calming whistle of the ship masts at the moorings tinted the air like the gentle singing of banshees trying to sing their stories and the giant giraffe like creatures stood crane-like across the bay at the shipping port, a giant island zoo of mammoth steel creatures from a bygone age. A tumultuous squabble rose and fell in the blustery wind as the seagulls vied for attention and chips. These were all the charms of my seaside home and I ached at the thought of having to leave it.
The mosquito pricked me again and I realised my mind had been wandering. I jumped and slapped it against my leg but I caught myself short and sharply looked up again. You were gone. In that tiny moment when I squashed the mosquito on my leg you had disappeared. You had turned into a pine tree blended into the bark that creaked and cracked. I screwed my face up and bit my lip. I was disappointed in myself and didn’t want to cry. I had to keep strong if I were to survive. There was a sound of a camera shutter sliding; a photographer had taken my picture. I was standing askew in my new red togs. My sandy hair was blown out in the wind as I gazed up to where the picnic tables were. He asked my opinion of the new beach.
‘It’s rad.’ I said using a word my teenage brother used. The adults worried about him not having a father. I wished they new how I needed one even though I was a girl. Regaining my composure I turned to the photographer and said, ‘I really like it.’
I watched my bare feet as I walked along the cement. I expertly skipped over the bindies that clustered tightly between cracks and avoided the hottest part of the tarmac pavement so that it wouldn’t burn my feet. Then just as carefully, I avoided the danger of spat out gum and broken bits of glass that decorated the ground with pretty glistening colour. If I hurt my feet I’d be made to wear shoes and I hated wearing their suffocating protection. I jumped across the street, keeping to the cool white lines of the crossing until I got to the café where my Aunt waited.
‘Where have you been?’ She asked sweetly as she un-wrapped the hot vinegary chips and ran her fingers through my awkward cowlick. I told her that I had my photo taken down at the beach and it would be in the Herald in the morning. She smiled at me with worried eyes.
Seasons. They spin like a carousel ride; months are colourful horses suspended in a cyclic canter of almost changing days, but they don’t quite change – the temperature will drop a degree or two, I may have maths instead of English but that was as varied as it got. My life was as uniform as the green and grey pinafore I wore to high school. Seasons spun - leaves were rain, frosts were diamonds and flowers were painted on with brushes and running daubs of pastelles in year nine art class. Then the sun began to set high and long in the sky, we suffered more day than night but it was the nocturnals that suffers. Those who scurried about the city in the dark, gathered in smoky clubs to sway away their cares; they were the ones that suffered. The teenagers running from home, the dissidents running from themselves. The new long brilliance of the day affected us.
Eight long years of a stinging sunshine that shone on my freckled face like an interrogation lamp. Eight long years of the three o’clock thunder storms that splashed into my emotion wrecked face, cooling my temperature and washing away my resolve. My life was counted out like a deck of cards in a poker game – I became the Queen of Ice. Your trail had long gone cold; I cared little after she had gone. Mother died on what seemed like the longest day of my life but the funny thing is; the thing that was the hardest to swallow - was that life went on. Birds chirped in teasingly pleasant tones and the sun was as cheerful and concentrated as ever. That day, I waited for you to show up and save me but you never came. I waited with my luggage packed and in the doorway but you never arrived. My Aunty was stuck with me, and I with her. We were each others cancer. She loved me but I could never be my mother and I loved her but could never forgive her for being the one still alive. She look just like mother, a little older, a little thinner but sometimes early in the morning, when I was just waking from a dream to the gentle call of breakfast, I thought she was her and that she would soon be in with my dressing gown and a proud motherly smile. And for Aunty, she saw mother in my growing face, heard her in my breaking voice. After mother’s funeral, I went home and I tore up your shirt in a fit of hot tears. I stuffed the shredded memento in the box I kept under my bed, the box where I kept all my secrets – love letters, pictures of crushes and books on sex. I searched for you no more, instead I dreamed of revenge.
I was sixteen and awkward before I chanced upon you again. My teenage friends and I would gather by the muddy brown waters of the river. You know the place across from the refinery which when lit up at night looked like a miniature model of a city. I was acting out all the classic symptoms of teenage rebellions and my friends had greater grudges on their shoulders than me. My therapist told Aunty it would pass. We smoked pot and lay in the long grass watching the paper mill and laughing at silly things. It was the laughter that I needed.
The mill looked like a giant owl at night. Big factory windows on each side for eyes and in the middle a huge door looked like a mouth. Smoke poured out of its chimney stacks and into the sky and my fuzzy eyes caught every movement in slow motion. I would lie on my back and make pictures out of its pollution, dogs, cats, once I saw Elvis – a little pollution King swinging through the starlit sky. That part of the city was secreted behind the airport and used to be industrial, deserted, other-worldly and at in the dead of the small town night, it was all ours – no one else existed in the world. No-one ever found us there, but then no-one was looking. I would lay on my back and dream through those paper mill clouds. I would be sucked up by them and sleep away my life suspended in the jaded laziness of my dopey hormones. I hadn’t thought about school in a long time. I hadn’t panned what to do next when my life was finally my own. Sometimes if I was still and quiet I would catch a glimpse of the anarchy nymph that raged inside us all, the very same anarchy that had wrecked millions of teenagers over the ages. But out of us all, the nymph had set it sights on Johnny Morrison.
Johnny was a beautiful boy, tanned olive skin, sun kissed hair and a face you knew would be handsome with age but Johnny wanted to kill himself; not that he was suicidal but he liked doing stupid dangerous things; things that just might get him killed. His daredevil stunt of that month was to carry a gun. It was his step-fathers gun; a man he hated and who hated him. Johnny’s stepfather, so Johnny said was just looking for a reason to kick him out. Johnny lined up cans against the rivers edge and shot at them randomly missing more than he hit. He put on a brave face when talking about the rejection of his step dad, ‘I’ll give him a reason, sooner I’m outta there the better.’ He moaned as he lined up his next wayward shot.
‘Your aim is crap!’ Tom liked to rib him but Johnny, a dangerous mix of self consciousness and bravado, would retaliate by pointing the gun at Tom. They played out this little act every day. Tom would laugh as the weapon was pointed at him at say, ‘Go on Jooohneeey! Shoot me.’ He taunted him with names and insults until the weaker boy couldn’t take any more and took off in embarassment. But something had changed in Johnny that night and his lips bent and went white and his brow raised high on his fringe kissed forehead. Suddenly he reaffirmed his aim and squeezed the trigger.
The shot was somehow louder than the others and rang out over the city, echoing off the sky scrapers in the distance and bouncing back to us accusingly. I sat up sharply pulled from my hazy hide-away to see Tom fall to the ground. I was frozen. I looked over at Johnny, pleading that the gun was pointed in another direction and it was just a warning shot to shut Tom up. It was still held up, shoulder height to where Tom had stood. Johnny dropped the gun and ran over to where his friend lay. He shouted angrily at himself along the way as if taking side with his bullying stepfather. Then suddenly, laugher – softly at first and then louder, nasty laughter filled the air that distributed the snap of the gunshot and Tom jumped to his feet and swung his hands high in the air mocking a theatrical bow.
‘Did you really think you could hit me, Joohhhny!’ Tom laughed and we all roused him for taking things too far. We gathered up our things while the sulking Johnny sat in the back of Tom’s scorpion and we cleared out in search of a service station.
The waft of musk and spice filled the restricted air of the petrol station, more petroleum than oxygen. I turned immediately and caught the shape behind me. It was the same silhouette that I saw behind the pines trees all those years ago. You stepped out into the light before me and I saw you for the first time. You were more handsome then I thought, tall like me and dark like a movie star. Outside in your car I could see you had a family; a wife, a son and a new daughter who was about the same age as me. She didn’t look rebellious, she seemed studious but wore her hair like mine and strangely I could see a sisterly resemblance in her. I wondered why your first family wasn’t good enough for you that you had to go out and get another, exactly the same as if we were a sweater you bought but once you got home didn’t like the colour on you. You traded us in at the family exchange desk in Myer.
I found myself longing to be in that car with the family I always wanted, the family that was wanted by you. I saw your hands and held mine up to compare; we both had long fingers, hands pulsing with veins that popped up in the humid tropical heat. My young heart starting twanging again with the pain of desertion but my head rationed and was prepared to overlook your behaviour. There you were! Finally, after all these years I had found you. I smiled and you smiled back and shuffled a little uncomfortably under my gaze. I wondered if you recognised the glint in my eye that was once yours. This moment, although seeming like forever only lasted a minute or two. What happened next is a little hard to remember. The reunion was disturbed suddenly by someone yelling – a nervous, high pitched wail. I thought I knew the voice but everything seemed fuzzy. I turned around searching for the source of the din and saw Johnny. He was at the counter brandishing his step-fathers gun and screaming. He looked crazy. It seemed like a dream. ‘Everybody hands up!’ Johnny’s shrill voice commanded with a force I never would have thought possible of him. I looked for Tom; he was already face down on the floor trying to reason with his emotional friend.
I turned back to you. I couldn’t let the chance go by. ‘Do you remember me?’ I whispered and you looked down at me confused and terrorfied, your hands in the air, praying for an escape. ‘I’m you’re daughter.’ I whispered. You did not move. Instead your face crushed with confusions. You told me that it was not possible. You told me that you never had children. I didn’t believe you. I heard myself sing out to Johnny as the hot tear formed in my eyes. Johnny turned around and without hesitation sounded his gun, his eye pouring also. Your face went white and you looked at me. A strange look came across your face, as if you did see me now. In a gasp you admitted the truth. You didn’t want children but you had once, long ago made a mistake. You shook your head at me and squinted. I watched as you fell to the ground and slumped over in a pool of blood.
Sirens blurred in the rain until the red flash of them coloured the very tar on the road. It was too late. You were gone this time for good. There would be no more pine tree shadows or strong musky smell. Johnny sat smirking in the back seat of the squad car. He had set out that morning with a plan.
I waded into the waters that lapped at the sand of Pandanus Beach. The water was cooling and it felt like it licked away all the heated controversy of the last twelve months. Johnny had gone to reform school, just as he had wanted. His step father had disowned him. I squatted down and lay your wreath on the calming tips of the ocean lull. I made the wreath from the rags of your old shirt, squeastered by the box under my bed for all these years.