The Disagreement

“I’m sorry it had to end this way.”

“Me too. “

We turned in opposite directions. I trudged, and skipped faster in turns, blood pounding in my ears, making me dizzy. I knew that difference existed in the world, but I hadn’t realised it was as close as my street, as close as my best friend before.

All the dogs, in all the white houses with their well kept lawns, barked and growled as I passed, some even trying to attack me through the fence. I could hear the dogs in the distance barking at her too.

At least in this we are the same. I thought, kicking a stone towards one of the fences.

Mum looked up from her washing, surprised to see me home so early. She frowned as I told her I’d had a disagreement with Marie.

“I thought you two had so much in common.”

“So did I! We both like maths, both play goal defender for our team… she bought me those long pencils for my birthday and we shared the pack. I can’t understand how we can think so differently!”

“It’s an unfortunate fact of life, love. Why do you think we’ve moved so many times? Do you remember all the crazy neighbours we’ve had?”

“I remember when we left the town with all the cat people.”

“Yes! What an awful, smelly place that was. We really needed to find other like minded dog-owners. I just love walking around this neighbourhood! Knowing that every dog nearby is capable of crushing a human skull in its jaws makes me feel so secure. Do you remember the town where it was unpatriotic not to grow vegetables? You couldn’t play soccer because they didn’t believe in grass.”

I remembered eating roast pumpkin slices with olive oil, liking the taste of fresh tomatoes for the first time, and learning how to catch fireflies in early summer. I felt disloyal reminding Mum of that though.

“They taught us the nutrients in different animals’ manure.”

She shuddered appreciatively at my contribution. “Oh yes! Somewhat of an analogy for our attempts to plant ourselves. So many variations, but all of them… hmmmm, bit blue for this time of the afternoon.” She turned back to her dish-washing. “In any case, you just can’t argue that lawn isn’t the best frontage for a neat home. It was honestly easier to move. Once you compromise on one thing, the end is Sharia Law enforced Communism – and we don’t want that!”

“I wonder if we will have to move? Or Marie?”

Mum put her cup down with a clank. “Marie, I should think, love. What was the issue?”

My heart began to pound again, my eyes straying to the freezer. I realised suddenly that the whole basis of my disagreement that afternoon had been based off a decision made alone, a few moves ago.

“Whatever it is, I’m sure it’s something we will agree on. You know this family’s values.” Despite her words, Mum’s face had become more grim as she followed my gaze.

“Well… we were going to the store. Marie wanted to buy some ice-cream. I asked what flavour.”

“And?”

“She said chocolate but…”

Mum had opened the freezer. From deep in the back, covered in ice-crystals, she uncovered a small tub of chocolate ice-cream.

“It’s never seemed that important to me before.” She said, looking at the ice-cream rather than me, “But, I never thought I would raise a non-chocolate eater. Where did I go wrong?”

I stood up slowly, as she finally raised her red-rimmed eyes to mine.

“Melly, I want you to go out for a bit, and think on this choice you’ve made. I want you to think if this decision you’ve made is something you really want to drive us apart. Your father and I will be having a long talk about whether we can accept such a perversion of our beliefs in this house, once he gets home from work.”

“But… Mum.” I struggled to speak through my panic, struggled to craft some alibi, a defence, building up to a flat out renouncement of the difference that had suddenly appeared between us.

I lost the moment though, as another fear muddied my thoughts and pushed itself out my mouth: “… How will you find me?”

“Brutus will find you.” There was an answering snuff from the screen-door as Mum’s pet pressed his giant head against the steel, causing tortured squeaks and covering everything in a slime of drool. I had always been afraid of that dog, and the idea of him let loose to seek me out filled me with almost as much dread as the idea that he might never come.

She made me some sandwiches with more tears than words, and clicked the lock behind me as I stepped back out onto the lawn.

My body felt weak. All I wanted to do was sink down into the freshly mown grass. Making it to the end of the driveway was the most difficult, but each successive house with its white fence and snarling dog was so similar, I could trick my mind into believing I was still by my own.

“Hey Melly.”

Marie stood in front of me, plastic bags in hand.

“Um… I’m really sorry I brought up food. My parents always say, “It’s easier to ignore what you don’t know exists, so never talk about politics, religion, sports, television, personal routines or what you want to be when you grow up.” I should have guessed really that food would be part of that list.”

She held out one of the bags. Inside was a small tub of vanilla ice-cream. My favourite.

She had chocolate. My family’s favourite. We sat down on the curb together, cracked open our different tubs, wrapped in their bags so no one else could see, and began to eat in silence. Growls, and squeaks from the dogs around us teased my hopes that Brutus was already on his way. Just wait until I finish. I thought, eating quickly.

The vanilla was so good though I wanted to linger. It was just like I remembered, even if I couldn’t recall exactly the place where I tried it. Just a park, a few dollars in my pocket, and a cart selling only that one flavour of ice-cream.

“I’ve never tried chocolate.” I admit. “What’s it like?”

She shrugs. “Mmm, I don’t know how to describe it. Sweet? I love it, though.”

“Can… can I try some?”

“…sure, if I can I try your vanilla?”

We swapped, both hesitating at the first taste. Chocolate was really good. Almost as good as vanilla.

“Is it possible to like two things?” I asked Marie in a low voice.

She looked around, then leaned in. “I actually like cats… as well as dogs.”

We share a wide-eyed look of shock at ourselves as I admitted, “And small, non-dangerous dogs, too. Mum hates them though. We’ve moved at least twice because of pet issues.” My ears physically twitched at a sudden spate of barking, but it was a postal worker, delivering brown-wrapped boxes.

Marie sighed, “Actually, that’s another reason I came tonight. We might have to go again soon. There was a disagreement at Dad’s work. They found out he says grace after eating, instead of before it. When do you guys do it?”

“Oh… we don’t.”

“Really? I didn’t even know that was an option. Mum said we might have to leave the country for somewhere like Australia where they say grace right.”

Silence fell again, and we swapped back to our original flavours. Soon, the tubs were empty, the guilty contents consumed. My neck was becoming sore from constant scanning of the empty street.

“I hope you can stay. I don’t even care about our disagreement any more. And all the other stuff we probably don’t agree on too.”

“Yeah, we totally should practice disagreeing but staying friends more.”

I jumped at the sound of dogs howling in the distance, but the seemed to receding in the opposite direction. Another false alarm. The sun had sunk to the point that our shadows stretched long down the street, back towards my house to those I hoped even now were leaving the house in search of me.

I would welcome even Brutus right now.

“Melly? You ok? We don’t have to do anything, if you don’t want to.”

“I know. I do want to, though. I want to disagree and stay friends. I want to try stuff, even if I think I might hate it.” The sun began to slip behind the tree-line. My neck hurt, but I couldn’t tear my gaze from the distant end of the road, and the house I had decided was probably, had probably been, my own. “I just don’t know if people can live like that.”

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A Changing Wind

Gusting. The wind always seems to be roaring about me. Strong enough to catch at the keys rattling by my hips. Three sharp toothed guardians almost fully covered by flaking red rust, that has migrated to my fingers and is now rubbing off onto the faded folds of my shorts. Digging around in the pocket opposite the ancient keys, I draw out a bunch of my own amid soggy ends of tissues and other scraps that make up the land-fill within my clothes.

Vape awaits me patiently as I struggle with an armful of papers that had come with the keys. Like a cheeky pixie, the zephyrs tug free the rust-stained roll of papers from their vulnerable position under my arm, and several skitter along the pavement with me in frantic chase.

Finally inside the car with a dishevelled heap of documents on the back seat that are important enough to make me run, but which I can’t bring myself to read yet.

Though older, I usually feel that I am in better shape than my car, nicknamed Vape as an unkind allusion to the various coloured (and smelling) vapours it releases, but usually I’m not recovering from an unexpected sprinting session. Some guy, who is otherwise forgotten, remarked once that, like some people and their pets resemble each other, my car and I share striking traits. Neither of us likes to move very fast, are hard to get going, especially in the mornings, and could both probably use a good vacuum. My new acquisitions are covering a mass of, possibly essential, material: last semester’s students’ work, new textbooks to review, sandwich coupons. One day, like Troy, it will be excavated.

The car has lasted me longer than most relationships, and kept me true to my student roots, though these days, in slightly more respectable professorship, it doesn’t get used as much. Instead the partner’s well-groomed, grown-up adult sedan is my serious chariot, within which mess is not tolerated.

This road-trip to Cairns however was an adventure which needed the support of an old friend. In humidity that acts like an unending warm shower, however I did miss the sedan’s air-conditioning.

There is a small, hard envelope amongst the other papers. It feels like it contains photographs, but, like the rest, I am not game to open it quite yet, just deconstruct the meanings of each faded letter on the outside. The graceful cursive, done in ink. Do they still teach cursive in schools? Ink, rather than ball-pen, is he someone with a creative flair, a literary bent? An eccentricity? Is he someone who owns quilted waist-coasts and spends conversations insufferably concerned with the price of premium goose-quill? Will I ask who taught him? Or will such questions fall between us like all the years have?

On the yellowed back are names and dates. It occurs to me that after all this time these may be all that is ever left to me of my son, Scott. I assume June is his wife’s name, followed by (two?) children. Skylar slash Damia. I didn’t spend much time choosing his name, and now my boy is the only one in his family with one so boringly normal.

The envelope and its unopened secrets back on the passenger seat, Vape shakes itself dog-like as it resurrects, and we begin to pull away from Cairns, aimed towards the northern highway.

Pregnant rain-clouds cluster on the hills, still holding jealously to their brood for the moment. Northern Australia colours are so rich after the dried-out stretches down south. How can one ever appreciate so many shades of green? And there is a sense of age, despite the fecundity. This is where the last virgin forest survives, the last echoes of a wild country that existed before dairy farms and cane-fields.

Driving into rainforest, the storm winds rising from the coast quiet a little, hemmed out by the canopy, netted in leaves. I don’t like it. This muggy, slow, breathless feeling of being contained, without clear air or space.

Or maybe that’s just the sign of a building anxiety attack?

What will I say, when he asks me: Why has it taken so long? I sent you the letter years ago.

Well, you see… Could I wordlessly indicate the state of the car, with a shrug to say, can you guess how my house must look? Could we laugh about it? How I almost had thrown away his messages out of sheer unawareness of their existence sandwiched within unpaid journal subscriptions and travel itineraries.

But they were found, and my house suffered through a one-woman cyclone as I scoured for any further missives. But there was (perhaps) only this one, leading me like a treasure map to Cairns, to the old, black-iron post-box containing these keys, an address, a map. Proof of a family of four living somewhere in these hills.

Why does he (did he?) even want to see me? What am I to him? The mother, who at 28, had no excuses regarding lack of funds, or worldly inexperience, to explain handing over her baby. Does it count that I knew the mother I chose for him would be better than me? I gave a child to a barren womb filled with all the maternal vibes I lacked, because I never wanted children. Life is stunningly unfair sometimes, I only sought to redress the balance.

What should I tell him? She asked me, already staring deep into his hazy blue eyes. Whatever you want. I had replied. Leave me out completely, if it makes it easier.

As a teacher, how would I instruct my students to analyse this situation? This sudden driving (nay speeding! Back down to 80, girl!) need to see that infant, now man, again?

Am I doing the right thing?

Vape complains as edge it from the road onto the muddy verge. I kill the engine and just stop a moment. Mosquitoes surge against the windows.

Am I doing the right thing?

There is a roll of papers on the back-seat that might tell me. I flick past the typed letter on top. This is my instinct, my issue, to bypass the boring looking things and stack them in a pile somewhere, always intending to return to them… eventually.

My eye catches colour and finally stops. Crayon drawings. Christmas trees and lumps that are possibly people. Happy Birthday cards. To me.

And between them, smaller and more normal than I would usually look at, letters from Scott. Telling me about his dairy farm, about the difficulties of hiring backpackers, about their hopes to expand next year.

There is eight years worth. Each card from Scott signed by a smaller, smudgy hand, that gets steadier each time.

After absorbing each one, until I could redraw them myself, I flip reluctantly back to read the typed letter. It is from her, his mother in everything but DNA. My anxiety renews.

It is shorter than I expected.

I told him: Your mother is a force of nature. At any time, some part of her is up in the atmosphere so it might take a while to get her attention and you must be patient. But eventually she will come.

Now, I told him that, because I know you won’t make me a liar, and I didn’t promise him anything else. I warn you though, that I think he has plans to convince you to become less mother and more mum.

Sorry if this makes things more difficult for you, but you gave me a gift once. My time has come. I give it back.

With unusual smoothness, Vape slides back onto charcoal coloured highway, and before long, we turn onto a muddy side road, breaking through the gloom of trees to edge ponderously up a scrubby hill. The wind rocks the car in a rough greeting.

There are gates, each one yielding noisily to a different key. We clatter over cattle-grids. The road, sharpened from recent deluges had melted into the grass along it like molten copper. It is, thankfully, a short journey for my off-paved-roads-virgin vehicle.

That must be their house. A typical Queenslander house on stumps, surrounded on all sides with verandahs and a peaked corrugated iron roof at the bottom of a smooth-sloped, midori-coloured valley. A cluster of sheds, paddocks and other farm-like equipment surround it.

Vape stalls outside the last gate. The starter-motor refuses to turn. I can see a blonde bob of hair within the mosquito netted verandah moving around. Suddenly nervous I flip the photo and gaze down again at the smiling couple, my son (so handsome!) is dark-haired, a bit serious looking and definitely a man of the land with his jeans and akubra. Despite the farmer exterior, I can match him to the graceful calligraphy on the front and in the letters. There is a sense of dedication about him, of sticking with things until they become beautiful. June, is light reddish curls and bright, cottons clothes, at the time of this photo healthily into the late stages of her pregnancy. They are framed by this exact scene, even the menacing weather, with newly planted palm tree sprouts (they are quite tall now) by the stairs bent into yoga poses by the wind.

The child is blonde, and quizzical, come half way down the steps of the house, wondering who it is loitering outside the gate. She looks about 8.

Skylar or Damia

Demmie it is then.

Did I bring boots? Nope. My shoes shed mud each step in fat chunks, as I abandon the car, opening the last gate smoothly.

“Mum and Dad around?”

She nods.

“Right then.”

There is a festival game blowing fragments of me around in my gut. Like all the rubbish in my car, and drawers of my desks is flying free. Will they ever settle?

I knock on the door, but she goes to turn the handle. The door sticks. My weathered hands join her smooth ones. It resists us on the first attempt, but a glass rattling gust assists and all together we push it open. It is much cleaner than I would have expected from the house of my offspring.

The palm trees straighten as the wind outside finally calms.

As always, feedback or comments are welcomed. Spelling is Australian.

The Family

He’s been gone too long.

Those in the house, have not forgotten the face,

only the shape of the soul within.

With the awkwardness only a family

of unfamiliar people can have,

they welcomed and withdrew.

His mother, his father, his sisters, his brothers,

fully filling their home with their busy bustling

between buttering bread and placing plates,

the setters and the servers.

While he can only wait, watch,

outside of the rituals and routines,

written off years ago.

And so being apart felt familiar,

more than the noise of his nieces.

He climbs the hill that has always cradled his parent’s house in its lee.

He walks its scrub strewn streets,

its withered winding ways,

well worn when he, when they, walked them.

Explored time over in expeditions to the bedimmed beneaths of bushes;

Over lorded by older sister dynasties;

Devastated for dirty battles and strip-mined for staffs and stick weaponry.

Site of seed collections hoarded, lost, forgotten, sprouted.

He remembers the first time he took time to notice the roughness of a tree,

If he thinks hard, can feel the prickle of remembered bumps

ghosting his fingertips.

He stands by this tree,

Slowly dissolving,

The man’s coat no longer fits.

If he thinks hard he can still remember,

the security he felt inside his father’s car;

the pride in helping his mother’s gardening;

the sting of sibling unfairness,

and the warmth of sibling inclusion that even now in exclusion,

he can feel ghosting him just beneath the skin.

He feels it all so strongly here,

now.

Will it evaporate with the electric lighting, etching away the dark?

But that he could draw them out here between the trees in the dusk,

let the dimness dissolve the face’s features and the differences of the years.

Let loose all nieces,

their screams and chatters like a long echo,

to remind the adults of their story.

Mashed-up, remixed, retold.

Remembered.

This is one of my few poems published in a real book and you can find it in: Elements of time : past, present, future an Accentuate Writers anthology along with many fine authors of short stories and poems.

I Don’t Need All Your Good Advice: Final

Final part of a  longer short story about a teenager still learning how to navigate tricky situations, the price of loyalty to the unworthy, and the demands of any relationship. (Go to the beginning: Part 1 )

As always constructive criticism, feedback or even a note to say hi in the comments is welcomed!

I saw Sara just one more time after that. School was over, with our, on occasions sweet but mostly long, graduation ceremony. I hadn’t seen her all day, as we were placed in different seats in the huge concrete lunch-area-slash-ceremonial-hall, then missed her during the rush of farewell hugs and tears, scribbling notes in everyone’s Year Books, and cleaning out my locker for the last time.

The school drained away. Younger students trudged back to their classes, and graduates with cars made their dash to freedom, and home, to prep for the graduation party. The crowd waiting for the specially chartered, early bus was small, and my usual seat mate wasn’t amongst them.

Home was stifling. Too empty and hot. I had hung my dress up on a curtain rod in the morning, hoping that if I stared at it long enough, it would help me decide whether or not to go tonight, whether I should continue sewing, whether I should accept any of my uni offers or just give up and become a hermit living off scraps behind Andy’s Legipops. I was placing a lot of unrealistic expectations on that dress.

It met none of them. I walked to the supermarket instead. If I didn’t go to the party, I would need junk food.

I recognised the dress first, before realising it was Sara wearing it, as she stood contemplating our usual meeting nook by the vending machines. She had her stilettos on this time, black, with matching dark eye make-up. I had been right about how intimidating she would become, particularly as she watched my approach without a smile, or a word.

“Dressed up already?” Decision procrastination had sapped my energy to the point that I hadn’t even changed from my school uniform yet. Even in flat, leather shoes we were the same height.

Professional female basketball? Top shelf grocery stacker? Possible career paths tempted me.

“Yeah, I’m heading out soon, just came down to grab some drinks’n’stuff for the trip.”

“Oh?” Despite her unusually stern expression, Sara moved closer to talk.

“Dad called.” She cleared her throat a little, and looked away.

Oh no… My hands twitched, as I wondered to what extent she would accept my comfort, but she looked back, eyes glassy with unshod tears, yet smiling.

“He said he’s sorry for everything. For trying to force me into a relationship with “a damn liar like Jo”. She ran home to mummy yesterday, and spun some great horror story. I don’t know what she asked him to do, but for once, he took my side and now he’s taking me and Mum up to Sydney tonight to celebrate my graduation… as a family.”

“Wow. That’s great, Sara.” I didn’t really know what else I could say. Maybe she heard the slight reservation in my voice, because her smile shrunk again.

“I wouldn’t worry about Jo. Nothing even happened to her, thanks to you.

Peace negotiator? Bomb defuser? Psychologist who talks people down off bridges?

“She wasn’t worth it.”

She tapped her long, fake fingernails against the vending machine, before holding my gaze again.

“No. I guess she wasn’t.”

She broke the awkward silence that followed with a quick glace at her watch. “Look, I gotta go. And you have the grad to get ready for.”

“Mmm. See ya then?”

“Yeah… sometime maybe.” We didn’t hug, and she didn’t turn back or wave as she clicked those stilettos away through the car park.

I stood by the vending machines for a while, filled with the sense that no matter what my future was, it wouldn’t contain any more late night conversations behind them.

Mum was home when I got back, and talking quietly on the phone. Pausing at the door, I blatantly eavesdropped, however she wasn’t doing much talking.

As she hung up the phone, I caught her eyes and raised my eyebrows.

She ignored them. “Congratulations, big graduate. How do you feel?”

I collapsed dramatically across the table.

“That good, huh?”

“I had a client try to cheat me out of my money after I made her a dress, and I don’t think Sara wants to be my friend any more.”

“Wasn’t Sara that girl who beat up people?” Mum had made us both tea, and brought them over to the table. “If you want my advice, and you never do, not having her as a friend doesn’t sound like a big loss. As for the other one… haven’t you heard of payment in advance?”

I sighed and accepted the tea. “Maybe you’re right.”

“Oooh, that’s a first from you.” She smiled though and a packet of chocolate biscuits joined our tea on the table.

“Was that Dad?”

“Yeeep. He wants to meet. Talk my ear off some more. Maybe over dinner somewhere. He said he’s paying.”

“Romantic.” I thought I had misjudged the mood as she stared wide-eyed at me, before giving me a whack with a nearby tea-towel.

“Just dinner! Don’t get your hopes up. Wrong choice of wine and it could be all over!”

“Wine? Sounds fancy.” I suddenly saw Mum in all her cotton uniform, broad shouldered, taller than average, shapeless, beige-ness. My fingers edged towards a spiel of measuring tape.

“Mum. I think you’re going to need a new dress.”

Scallop skirt, just below the knees, to accentuate her long legs, orange, like the one in her student photo. The blouse, cobalt blue, flaring to accentuate her curves, with a wide neckline and short puffed sleeves. It would be the outfit of a curse-proof scheme.

Mum sucked on a chocolate biscuit, her eyes lingering on ruffles of my creation. Watching her, I was finally able to make a decision, at least regarding my near future. Dresses were made to be worn. I had a few more hours left before the party to prepare.

Mum finally nodded. “Yeah, I think I might too. I guess I better put in my order now quick before they all that dress tonight and your schedule fills up.”

Am I hearing this?

She took out her wallet. “How much do you charge?”

And for one, probably transient, but still euphoric moment, everything seemed clearer.

Professional dressmaker? Worth another shot.

The End

I Don’t Need All Your Good Advice Part 7

Part 7 of a  longer short story about a teenager still learning how to navigate tricky situations, the price of loyalty to the unworthy, and the demands of any relationship. (Go to the beginning: Part 1 )

Some swearing.

As always constructive criticism, feedback or even a note to say hi in the comments is welcomed!

Give her this.”

Dad had passed me a photo as I was climbing out of his van. Over the last few days, I had studied it closely, but even so, again held it close to my face, trying to spot a detail about the people within it that I might have missed before.

They were a student pair of the 70s. A laughing, flirtatious girl in a high cut, dusty orange dress, no stockings and big sunglasses, grabbing the broad arm of a young, man in matching shades, khaki short sleeves and a mullet he no doubt now regrets.

My parents.

Back before bitterness, before disappointment, before anything deeper than looking stylish in a photo. Would the promise of a memory be enough to convince her to take Dad’s call? Was I right to even ask her to? Mum wasn’t this girl any more. If she had the chance, perhaps she would walk into this photo and yank off those glasses, and make her younger self see the world in all its current, regret-coloured greyness.

Jesus stared down at me from every wall. The memory associated with them of my Grandma, cleaning, straightening, proudly hanging new ones she found at garage sales, calmed me. I remembered her forcing us all to eat together, an increasingly difficult task as we grew into moody teenagers; secretly calling Mum’s work to organise a shift change or day off so she could come to a school event; and not so secretly agitating for Dad to come home, in huge fights with Mum. The thought of those fights, usually in Maltese, and accompanied by lots of tea-towel throwing, made me nervous again.

I heard the car drive in, and the engine switch off, the clang of keys against the door frame. Mum was home already! Lost in the photo, my sewing jumble was still on the table, with all three dresses hanging behind it.

I took my place in front of the table, shielding them with my body in case she went into a rage again. As Mum came in she looked at me, then at the dresses, then back at my face, probably seeing there a mixture of white fear and defiance.

She burst into tears.

“I really don’t need this now, Rachel.” She said, disappearing into her room.

I sat heavily in the pool of kitchen light, with a weird, mixed, burn of relief and bewilderment in my chest.

That was unexpected.

It took half an hour, and a cup of tea, to build up the courage to slip into her room.

Despite the heat, she had pillows and blankets bunched around protectively. At least it was soft to cuddle into.

We lay in silence for a while. It had been a long time since I had come in here. Her room, and her bed, were where we met at times of family crisis. When Dad had left, or been asked to leave, Mark and I had come in to sleep in a big, comforting family jumble. After she came back from visiting Mark in the police cell, we slept a week in this room together. With Grandma gone by then, the house and all its previously occupied rooms had become a wound.

“Mum?”

“I’m not a monster.” Her voice was hard to hear through the blanket. She threw out an arm and pulled me in under.

“I know that uni is a big step when you’re not sure what your interest is. But the world doesn’t care, doesn’t wait, and you’ll lose all those opportunities that come when you’re young. You need to be ready to catch them or they’re gone forever. Uni, work, these are things you have to do, not because they’re fun, but because they’re what you need to get security. A home sewing business will never give you security. I’m not saying this to be mean, just realistic, cos you have no training other than Grandma. Who will want a teenage seamstress apart from other teenagers, maybe? Find some job at least as a parachute. Y’know, I talked to my supervisor for you, and she’s happy if you wanted to come in, do some work experience, maybe even get some paid hours. That’s a good compromise, if you don’t want to go to uni yet.”

The heat and blankets were becoming oppressive. I flipped them open a bit, to allow in cool, fresh air.

“Mum, do you even like working there? I remember how you wanted to be a librarian. What happened to that?”

“Because things didn’t work out. All of your Dad’s business failures left us too broke for me to do a Library Science course, or to volunteer in the library until a job came up. Nerry’s is at least stable. Pays your school bills, buys your food!” I can feel her body tensing up, her arm withdrawing and a pillow getting wedged in between us. “Why can’t I have one kid following my lead? Mark and his idiocy proved that he’s your father’s son. I was hoping when I saw your good grades that you would enjoy the chances I missed, but lately I’m beginning to wonder if you aren’t also his daughter!”

The blankets were being pulled off me. I let them go and sat up, “It took two people to make me, Mum, I’m not your clone, and couldn’t be if I tried.”

“Then you’re just going to leave me too.” Her voice was flat, and I couldn’t see her expression in the dark, but the words gave me hopes that helped control the anger and resentment our budding fight had produced.

“They want to come home, Mum. Mark’s been training as a baker at-”

“When did you see your brother?” She sat up.

“The other-”

“I’m not happy with you interacting him, Rachel, he’s a criminal now, and people don’t change.”

“Mum!” The angst roared back and my hands itched for one of Grandma’s tea towels to hurl. “He’s your son! My brother! You wonder why you’re alone? It’s because you pushing us all away! Always remembering our mistakes! Sometimes people fail Mum, why don’t you get that?”

“Rachel-”

You told Dad to leave.”

It was out there now. Time to test which one had been telling the truth. The proverbial gloves were off, and her counters could be the finishing blow to the boys’, and my, hopes of us ever being together again.

“You said he ran away, but you kicked him out! There’s a pattern here! Mark fucks up once and he’s broken beyond repair? Now I’m not following the plan, what will you do? Change the locks when I’m out? I bet you’ll love being all alone, except when you’re at a job that you fucking hate!“

“Move out then! Move out! Maybe you might finally understand what it’s like to struggle. Even then you won’t have to support an ungrateful family, always knocking you on your back! Get out Rachel, out of my room!”

I stood, stumbling a little as the blankets tangled. We glared at each other, even as my anger began to subside into a cold ball of regret in my gut.

Well, I’ve fucked it all up now.

Hands shaking, I took Dad’s photo out of my pocket and placed it on the bed.

“They want a second chance, Mum. To – I don’t know – show you they made good.”

Her voice was less angry, but guttural like she was pushing the words out through clenched teeth. “Your Dad made life really difficult, Rachel. I know you don’t remember, but I do. I don’t know if I could ever forget enough to forgive him. Either of them.”

“Just talk then. Maybe it’ll help, you know.”

She picked up the photo, gently, though she shook her head. “It’s impossible to go back. I just can’t let all these years go so easily.”

“Dad’s going to call. Just talk. Don’t even talk, just listen.”

She shook her head again. Placing the photo, face down, on the nightstand, she turned her body away, but didn’t protest when I climbed back in and curled around her back.

Lacking the energy to speak any more, sleep came quickly, and so heavily that I didn’t wake even when she left for work in the morning. When I did rise groggily to drag myself to school, I noticed the photo was gone.

Part 8

I Don’t Need All You Good Advice Part 6

Part 6 of a  longer short story about a teenager still learning how to navigate tricky situations, the price of loyalty to the unworthy, and the demands of any relationship. (Go to the beginning: Part 1 )

Some swearing.

As always constructive criticism, feedback or even a note to say hi in the comments is welcomed!

Say something.

The silence had expanded throughout the interior of Dad’s van and, with nothing obvious to jump-start conversation, paralysed my ability to speak. For his part, Dad seemed like he was constantly on the verge of saying something. His eyes would flick over to me, and he would suck in a breath to oxygenate all the words, which somehow got trapped in his diaphragm and the air would whoosh out again, like a sigh.

The sheer width of the car, and the roar of noise from outside as Dad’s ‘free air-conditioning’ preference had all the windows down, made it difficult to talk even when my brain finally produced the banal, “So… new car?” which got lost in the wind, and had to be repeated three times at volume, before Dad wound up a window to reply, “Yeah, you like it?”

Well… It wasn’t clean like Mum’s car, with regularly vacuumed mats and my Grandma’s lace doilies on the headrests. The van was grimy and a few soft-drink cans rolled over empty chip packets underfoot; while in the back a mass of crumbled black tarps covering some cargo. Whitish, grey dust covered everything.

We pulled up in front of the white, concrete-brick building that looked more like a community hall than a Correctional Centre. The tall fence around the side was bare of barbed wire, and young guys leaned against the railings on the balcony, chatting.

“Are they… inmates?”

“Yeah, probably knocked off from their work for the day. They’re all good kids, don’t worry. “ Dad passed me a card in a plastic sleeve. “I’ve gotta go park this down the road a bit, you go on in, show them the visitor card and tell ’em I’ll be coming along in a bit.”

What! Go in? Alone?

As Dad drove off, I lingered by the curb. If he was coming along soon, I could just wait until then.

“Hey, Miss! You with Mr Walker, Miss?” The boys on the balcony had noticed me, one was walking down the stairs. I braced for a police squadron to appear and tackle him down as he moved further from the Centre.

“You here to see Mark, Miss? I’ll show you where he’s at.” The boy was tall, and a few years older than me, but even up close didn’t seem that threatening. I followed him mutely, expecting jeering comments as I passed the others. They had all resumed their conversation however, about Dad’s van and how sick new rims would look on it.

My guide took me past the sign in desk, after quickly flashing the badge towards a police officer who nodded us through with a: “So John’ll be along in a minute? No worries.”

Down a narrow, dim hallway, lined with doors. The boy stopped by one.

“Here’s usually in here in the arvys.” He said as he opened the door.

Compared to the hallway, the room was well-lit with afternoon sun. Two beds lined up against the walls, with a table and chairs against the window. Mark had been sitting with his back to the door, flipping through a thick book, though he turned at the noise of the door.

“Rachel!”

“Hey Mar-” My words got cut off by a mouthful of shoulder at he leapt up and across the room to grab me in a hug. His body was harder, and taller, than I remembered, and his clothes cleaner, without the stink of cigarettes.

“Ahhh, I missed you! Come sit down! Do you want the bed or the chair? You’re so much taller now! You’re going to be bigger than Mum soon. Is she coming today too?”

“Um, no.”

“Oh, fair enough.” His lips twisted a little, though he smiled again as he pulled out the chairs.

“I think Dad wanted it to be just me today. I don’t know if he’s even seen her since he moved out.”

“Yeah, I don’t think so.” He sat in the middle of his bed, legs pulled up. “She hasn’t come here either. She calls sometimes, but I think visiting me in the police station made this whole thing a bit too real for her.”

I looked around at his room. The white bricks were hidden beneath aboriginal dot paintings in frames and tattered posters of cars and bands.

“This is a lot nicer than I expected. There’s no… bars or anything.”

“It’s pretty low-security, everyone here’s in for drugs, or fights, mainly.”

“Aren’t they worried you’ll try and escape?”

He shrugged, “Nah, it’s not so bad in here, and I guess they trust us not to take off. “ He caught my eye, “There’s a lot of trust here.”

Mum trusted you too. I frowned, but he had begun talking.

“They keep us pretty busy anyway. Some of the guys are really good at their art – not me though – so we make them wood frames, and boards and stuff. We can do TAFE courses, and even go out to classes or to workshops sometimes. Dad has me helping him most days…”

“Dad?”

“Yeah, the business is doing really well, he’s needing me most days now.”

The business? I felt the walls were closing in on me. The van, the whitish powder, Mark’s old connections…

My voice lowered to a harsh whisper, “What are you doing! Dealing drugs from Dad’s van! That’s fucking crazy, you’ll get caught again–“

Mark stared at me. “What the hell, Rachel, no! I’m not dealing drugs with Dad’s, though, “ He laughed, “The van does look a bit dodgy, when you think about it, but… NO!”

“Then what business is it?”

“Baking! Not hash brownies either, just before you think that.”

“Oh.” I sat and digested this for moment. The food safety certificate hanging over the desk, and business management texts on his desk by my elbow suddenly seemed obvious. “Well… I feel dumb. Sorry for thinking… ”

“Don’t, don’t. I kind of deserve it. I’ll have to make sure I’m more clear when it comes time to tell Mum.” He leaned forward. “We have a plan, sis.”

“Drug smuggling, right? OK, OK, it was a joke!”

He threw a sock at me. “Listen! Mum’s always told us, Dad left, and we had to deal with his mess. Dad reckons she kicked him out though, saying our lives would be better off without him, and I guess it was kind of true at the time, so he went.”

I opened my mouth, but he continued quickly.

“So, he got this job at the bakery, and worked there until the old boss wanted to leave, and he bought it! It’s his now. That’s where I’m working most days. And, Rach, get this, it’s making a profit! People like his stuff. I’m not working there for free, I’m getting first year apprentice wages.”

We heard footsteps coming down the hall, and Dad’s voice bantering with what sounded like the police officer from before.

Mark got up to fix him a chair. “Dad’ll fill you in on the rest of the details, but the main idea is to get us back to being a family again. If we can get them together in the same room, Dad can make his case for secon– well, more than second but anyway, another chance now that he’s made good. That’ll be your part, Rach, getting her cool enough to hear us out.”

Us. It wasn’t just for Dad, Mark wanted that second chance. His room here was tidier than I’d ever seen it; certificates embossed with his achievements spread over the walls, and his ambitions on his desk. He was trying to be worthy of that second chance.

Would Mum accept his efforts?

As Dad reached the door, Mark put his hand on my shoulder, “It’s going to be different when I get out. If I don’t let the past hold me back, no one else can either. Dad taught me that.”

Part 7

I Don’t Need All Your Good Advice Part 5

Part 5 of a  longer short story about a teenager still learning how to navigate tricky situations, the price of loyalty to the unworthy, and the demands of any relationship. (Go to the beginning: Part 1 )

Some swearing.

As always constructive criticism, feedback or even a note to say hi in the comments is welcomed!

“You’re quiet today.” Jo said, as I carefully pinned the paper patterns to her school uniform.

“Yeah.”

Silence settled over us again. Best to just keep quiet, both to avoid becoming more involved further in the saga between my two clients, as well as to better hear the footsteps of either Mum or Sara arriving unexpectedly. Pins were pushed into the soft wood of the table legs, after my jumpiness made keeping them in my mouth more dangerous than even style would allow.

“How’s everything going with Certifiable?”

“Who?”

“Sara. Sorry, I know you guys are friends and all, but she is pretty crazy.”

It’s hard to deny, but… “She’s having a pretty rough time at home, you know. I think that’s enough to make anyone become a bit… over-dramatic. Turn around.”

“Yeah, except, the way she acts, you’d think no-one’d ever gone through a divorce before.”

I stabbed a pin into the table, wishing we weren’t having this conversation. “It’s always hard when reality sets in. She’ll learn to focus on other things.” Like I focus on this dress, and not my fight with Mum, or my own broken home. Healthy? “How’s that feel? I think it’s fitting really nicely.”

“Her Dad is a jerk anyway.”

“Um, OK. I didn’t realise you’d met him. Aaaah, be careful! Don’t rip it!” She had twisted around to stare at me.

“OK, OK, hold up a sec. What has she told you?”

“Whatever, it’s not my business. Let’s just get the patterns off, or you’ll end up asymmetrical.”

“She didn’t mention anything about her Dad and my Mum at all then?”

Oh… I looked up at her wordlessly. It all makes a lot more sense now.

“Nothing?”

“Uh, She only really talked about some exam trouble at Grammar.”

Jo’s arms quivered. Trapped in the paper, they punctuated her words in stiff, though still alarmingly violent, motions. “That! That’s when I realised she really hated me. Me! For what? Her stupid Dad dating my Mum? Trying to be all friendly and hey! I have a daughter your age. You know he brought me over some of her stuff? Like her books and shit? I never asked for a father, especially not her father, but she can’t hate him, so I get all her angst. The exam was just the last straw. No wonder they expelled her.”

She stopped, her eyes meeting mine, searching for some missed reaction. “You don’t know anything about this? She hasn’t told you anything, has she? And you’re her best friend? “ She began drawing out the pins around her in order to sit down. As I hastily took over before anything got ripped, she murmured, “And that’s why we call her Certifiable.”

A heavy silence returned, full of my regrets, not only about having tried to defend Sara leading to this outburst, or the decision to take two arch-enemies as clients, but shading into remorse of having made contact with anyone, ever.

But it made sense. If I couldn’t trust Dad to stick around, or Mum to support my dreams, or even Mark to use his brain, how could I trust someone I’d only known a few years to tell me the truth about her painful past?

Focus on the dress.

Rolling out the rich, red material seemed to make both of us perk up. Jo touched an edge of the satiny fabric. “Wow, it’s going to look great.”

“I’d like to have it done by end of next week, so I’ll give you a call for when to come around again for another fitting. If you could bring the cash next time too…?”

Jo’s hand pulled away, but she nodded. “I just got a job at Nick’s Nosh, starting tonight, so that’ll help. Actually, this is a bit awkward, but I just realised I didn’t bring the deposit for their uniform. So… could you spot me and add it to my bill?”

“Sure, I guess. Though, it’s going out of my fabric fund, so I hope I don’t need anything more for your dress this week.”

“Thanks babe! “ She took the money and began collecting her gear, “Man, I wonder what will happen if Sara ever comes to Noshies?”

I will get a call to come hold your arms back… “Look, you know Sara is still really angry, and not going to chill out any time soon. It’s not my business, but I think you should talk it out, instead of always worrying she might be the next customer through the door.”

Jo’s cheerful expression fell away to one that was reminiscent of a two-year old’s stubborn scowl. “Unless you can talk her Dad out of moving in, I doubt it. Let’s just drop it, OK? I’ll see you about the dress next week.”

Closing the door on her, I felt I was closing something inside me. Maybe Mum was right in believing there was nothing she could have done to stop Mark. There’s no medicine for stupidity, there’s no advice that can stop a bad decision if it’s wanted to be made. Instead, I savoured the emptiness of the house.

Both dresses were at the stage of transforming from paper into product. Sara wanted a little black dress and I could see them becoming a frequent request if I lasted past this tumultuous beginning of my trade. I wanted something less funeral for her, I wanted a summery halter neck in yellow cotton, with a tight waist and ripply, bell shaped skirts falling just below the knee.

But she wanted a little black dress: strapless, shiny, ankle length matched with new stilettos.

And there’s nothing I can say to change that.

The phone rang. I moved slowly to answer it.

“Rachel?”

“Wha- Dad?” I hunched over a little, at the sharp pain in my gut.

“Hey girl, how you doing? Hey, I’ve got something to show you, if you’ll come past tomorrow arvy. Just you, ok? Don’t bring your Mum. Yet.”

Part 6