This is my 2016 Nanowrimo story! I do Nanowrimo every year and love it.
When Alice was born, all the power in the hospital went out. There were generators, of course, because it was a hospital, but she was thrust from the womb into an beeping orchestra of panicked life support machines. Later, the newspaper would blame high winds, and the government would blame renewable energy, but none of that changed the fact that Alice had been startled from the very moment she emerged into the dark.
They kept her in the hospital for a week. Something about the shape of her head, the soft part on the top where her brain was exposed. She met her brother Jove on the third day. She swears now that she remembers it, his red hair and blue shorts. They sat him on the plastic hospital chair and let Alice rest in his cocoon. ‘Gentle,’ their mum said, and he was. With his own baby-fat hands he touched her hair (black, lots) and her cheeks and the pilled arms of her hand-me-down Wondersuit. Their parents took photos of them on their digital cameras and they knew while they were taking them that they would remember this moment forever, with or without the evidence.
While Alice’s head hole healed, her mother held her very close to her collarbone and they watched TV together. In her first five days, Alice learned about Osama bin Laden, and global warming, and a giant wave that had destroyed whole islands. She learned about terrorist attacks, and Liberal party politicians, and a Prince who married a woman nobody liked. She learned about these things and listened to the wind rushing in and out of her mother and her head hole healed.
In the other bed, a woman stared into the face of the person she’d produced and felt nothing.
When Alice was six months old, a Scottish man came to the door to sell electricity. It would not have been noteworthy at all except that when her father opened the door, the man took his breath away, sucked it clean out of his body.
So, Alice learned about doppelgängers, and why it is such a bad sign to have your exact double come to the door to sell electricity, and she learned about funerals, and the dark church music ran into her and stayed there, playing on a loop inside her cells.
After her dad’s funeral, the newly-three of them came home to the house in Melbourne and her mother looked at her and looked at her bank balance and realised she had to go back to work. It was hard to find a daycare place. She applied everywhere within a ten-kilometre radius but they had all filled up except one, which was in a haunted old house by the sea and run by a woman with lice in her hair. Alice’s mother bought a backpack with a whale on it and one with a superhero, and matching lunch boxes. She imagined standing in the kitchen that had once been filled with her husband, and stirring organic baby food in a heavy-bottomed pan, and cutting sandwiches into cookie shapes, but after the first week she was lucky if she remembered her children’s names at all.
Alice was afraid of the old house, even then, even when she was six months old. Jove found the pockets of ghosts and dragged them out to her, the long white strands. There were six other children, and nine on Fridays, and by the end of the first month they had all learned how to wave smudge sticks, even Alice who could barely use her arms at all.
When Alice was four years old, she went to school. It was the local school at the end of the street, and she was a bit young, probably, but her mother was ready to get on with things. In the mornings, seven-year-old Jove made each of them a cheese sandwich and put it in a plastic shopping bag with an apple. They walked to school together; their mother had already left for work. Sometimes they were late. Sometimes the principal called them into her office and said, ‘Is everything okay at home?’ Everything was okay at home. Their mother made pasta and chicken schnitzels and let them stay up to watch The Simpsons.
Alice’s teacher was a small man who came to school each day in a different shade of cardigan. He wrote on the board in looping letters, sometimes drawing a picture of a bird or a snake or a frog. The frogs were the best, their shoestring legs with splayed toes, and eyes bugging out of the sides of their heads. Sometimes he called one of the students to the board to draw their own frogs. Sometimes he told the girls to reach higher, to draw the frogs right up as far as they could reach.
Later in the year, her teacher was moved to a different school. The mothers had taken a petition around and, later, the police had investigated. His replacement was a serious young woman with a black moustache. She didn’t draw any frogs, but she also didn’t look up the girls’ skirts. So, Alice learned the importance of personal space.
And when Alice was twelve years old, and Christmas music was playing in the shops and people were putting up with their families for one whole day of the year, Alice learned about the bloated bare face of drowning.
Alice’s mother’s name is Emily, but she can never remember it under pressure.
There were two good things about being twelve at Christmas: you could convince people you still believed in Santa, and the adults were too drunk to care what you were up to. She’d got a slinky that year, from Uncle Rob. He sat beside her at Gran’s white table and said, ‘Pass the potato salad,’ and ‘Are there any drumsticks left?’ but his voice came out so thick, like he had an apple in his throat. Alice was proud to sit next to him, to pass the things he wanted and be useful.
After lunch she took her slinky to the park down the road. Her brother Jove came trailing behind her, knocking his knees together on his new skateboard. It was hot the way only an Shearer’s End summer could be, in suspended animation until the rain came, and a couple of groups of families sweated under gazebos and watched their kids run under sprinklers. Alice was both too old to run under sprinklers and too young to stand under gazebos, so she took the slinky behind the kiosk (which was closed, being Christmas) and dripped it down the stairs. Jove shouted from the skate ramp.
They came to Shearer’s End for Christmas most years. Alice’s mum only stayed for the day (She had her important script editing job to get back to in Melbourne. She wrote TV shows. That was the coolest thing Alice could think of.) but she and Jove stayed on for the whole week and at the end, Gran put them back on the train herself. Mostly they spent it in the park, but some years Gran took them into town to the old department store (so many dusty perfume bottles and buckled shoes) and they pressed their noses to the glass of the Christmas windows. Afterwards they would walk down to the chocolate shop and have a milkshake with ice-cream in it, and the people would rush by, complaining into their phones about working over Christmas. It seemed exotic, the city. Enormous and full. That was the beauty of being twelve.
Jove shouted from the skate ramp again. He wasn’t good, at skating or at shouting. She dripped the slinky down a second time, watched the silver rings twist together. It would be broken by dinner time. She knew that because Uncle Rob bought her a slinky every year, and every year it was broken by dinner time, but he had a different set of family to visit then so he never saw the broken end of it.
It made a glorious sound, the slinky. Like a rainstorm against concrete. Alice thought about that. She kept a kind of journal in her head of words she liked to group together. She said it aloud, so she was more likely to remember it: ‘A rainstorm against concrete.’ She dripped the slinky and listened to the weather crashing into the city.
Something moved in her peripheral vision. A dog? She loved dogs. They had one back in Melbourne — Doris, a German Shepherd. Alice’s mum thought all dogs should have human names. That’s how important they were. Maybe even more important than humans, so Alice’s mum always gave her dogs posh-sounding human names.
The shape moved again. It wasn’t a dog. A person.
‘Hello,’ Alice said. Not as a question, but a statement. The slinky poured down the steps again.
‘Hello,’ came a voice. It was a soft and quiet voice. The boy who followed it from the shadows was about Alice’s age, but without a slinky and with a baseball cap pulled over his face.
‘Merry Christmas,’ Alice said, because she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
‘Thanks.’ The boy under the baseball cap sat next to Alice on the steps. ‘Can I have a go of your slinky?’ he said.
‘Yeah, of course. It’ll get twisted up by dinner time anyway. Uncle Rob gives me one every year and it always does.’
‘Cool.’ The slinky went drip-dripping down the steps. The boy under the baseball cap retrieved it and went again, the slip-sloshing rain sound against the concrete.
Jove shouted from the skate ramp, this time to say, ‘I’m going back to Gran’s!’ Both of the families had moved to the barbecues, and now one of them had disappeared inside a cloud of burnt sausage smoke.
‘Are those your families?’ Alice said.
‘The one inside the smoke is,’ said the boy under the baseball cap, whose voice was still soft but now a bit less quiet.
‘I have a baseball cap too,’ Alice said.
‘It’s not a baseball team though. It’s got a picture of a Pokemon on it.’
The family inside the smoke cloud yelled a few obscenities and a sausage came hurtling out.
‘Does your family always throw sausages?’ Alice said.
‘Do you want to walk to the creek?’
When they came to Shearer’s End in spring — which they occasionally did, because Alice’s birthday was in spring and it was a nice treat to visit Gran for her birthday — the creek had sometimes filled up with the new season rain, and if the water was deep enough there might be ducks, too, and baby ducks. Trails of them, like duck necklaces. A couple of times Alice and Jove had followed the duck necklaces back to their nests and watched the baby ducks get folded inside the bigger ducks’ wings, where their beds were. One of those times, they had found a blue duck egg and taken it back to Gran’s and wrapped it in a tea towel. It didn’t hatch, even though they kept it under a table lamp.
It was very hot, though, and the creek was almost empty. Where the water collected in ponds, it was muddy and full of wrigglers. So many wrigglers, in fact, that Alice could grab them straight out of the water and hold them in her hand. She showed them to the boy under the baseball cap.
‘I’m allergic to mosquito bites,’ he said.
‘Oh, sorry,’ Alice said.
‘It’s not your fault.’
Alice put the wrigglers back in the mud pond. They walked further down the creek bed, which was cracked and hissing in the sun, and Alice wished she had thought to wear a baseball cap because she could feel the top of her head burning. Where the creek turned a corner towards the cemetery, there was a stone bridge with initials carved into it. A+G. R+J.
‘Do you think that one’s Romeo and Juliet?’ Alice said.
‘You know, like the movie.’
‘Never seen it.’
‘We could watch it together.’
There were always friends to be made in the park. Two Christmases ago, Alice had met a pair of twins, who had brought their ferret with them on a leash. They had let Alice take the ferret for a walk right around the kiosk and over to the skate park, where Jove told her ferrets were vermin and only useful for hunting other vermin. The twins didn’t hear him, though, so they had agreed to be Alice’s pen pals. She had sent them fifteen letters since then. Sometimes they came back ‘return to sender’ but usually they made it through. Letters could be so unreliable. Maybe in her next letter she would ask if they could email instead.
Alice showed the boy under the baseball cap the spot next to the bridge where the mains water pipe came near the surface.
‘It’s so they can make the creek run if they want to,’ she said. ‘They just take the cap off and all the water comes pouring out.’
‘I guess if they’re having a dragon boat festival they might need to have water in the creek.’
‘Do you have any snacks?’
The boy under the baseball cap had a muesli bar and some of those hard Christmas lollies that turned to dust when you chewed them. Alice didn’t like either of those snacks, but she didn’t want to offend so she ate a dusty Christmas lolly without spitting.
‘What’s your name?’ she said.
‘Nah, Xan. It’s got an X at the start.’
‘Oh, that’s cool. Is it short for something?’
‘Hi, Xan. I’m Alice.’
Xan didn’t take off his baseball cap or lift up his eyes, which Alice couldn’t see were the kind of green you might find in a rainforest. She didn’t ask him to, either, because she respected his boundaries. The two of them thought about unscrewing the top of the water pipe but didn’t do that either.
‘Do you live near here?’ she said.
‘But you didn’t know about the water pipe?’
‘Nah, I did.’
‘Wanna come and get a sausage?’
‘Will your family throw it at me?’
‘Maybe, if my Pop is cooking.’
‘I don’t have a Pop.’
The smoke cloud had cleared to reveal the family once again. There were Xan’s parents, who patted Alice’s shoulder and asked her to take a seat between them, like they were bookends. There was Xan’s sister, Felicity, and Xan’s brothers, who had names that were similar enough to be confusing and so Alice would never remember them. And there was Pop, who threw sausages, and a couple of aunties with curly hair and a couple of aunties with straight hair. And Nan, who sat in a wheelchair and said, ‘Who’s that?’ a lot but didn’t seem to be saying it to Alice.
‘You a vegetarian, girl?’ Pop said. Alice wasn’t a vegetarian, but she was concerned about animal welfare and so tried to make sure she only ate grass-fed beef and free-range eggs, which sounded like ways to make an animal’s life nicer before it was made into a sausage.
‘We’ve just got supermarket ones, sweetheart,’ said Xan’s mum. ‘It doesn’t say if the beef is grass-fed.’
‘That’s okay,’ Alice said, and caught the sausage in a slice of bread. Xan’s family had six different kinds of sauce. Alice chose the one with the smallest amount remaining, which seemed a good way to know if it was good to eat. After she had finished, she put her paper plate in the recycling bin and said to Xan, ‘It was nice to meet you. Will you be here tomorrow?’
‘Maybe I’ll come back.’
She wouldn’t have said it, if she’d been able to see the future, but that was the thing about the future.
This is from a later section of the story - no spoilers!
There are no photos from the wedding of Emily Howard and Graham Kirkinackie.
Emily married Graham under a wedding arch on the kind of spring day that brought the wind in from the north. Her mother-in-law had made the arch, which was the first and last nice thing she’d ever done for Emily, but, as it turns out, might actually have been an attempt on Emily’s life via bees. Hundreds of them. The arch was woven with lavender and those tiny pink flowers, and while Emily stood under it to commit herself, body and soul, to Graham, the bees swarmed in her hair and stung her around the jaw.
On that day — which was October the 14th, 2000, a Saturday, and also the day before Emily realised she was pregnant with the embryo that would later become Jove — the Howard family (her mother and father, her sister, and a ring-in aunt who’d come up from Ballarat) and the Kirkinackie family (who called themselves a ‘clan’ and could not afford to send anyone except Graham’s mother and brother) sat in white-chaired rows in the gardens of the only Anglican church in Shearer’s End, and Graham’s mother tried to murder Emily. It wasn’t even the first time; Emily had on two occasions returned to her apartment to find natural peanut butter delivered to her doorstep. That might have seemed a nice gesture to any other person, but Emily was anaphylactic to peanuts.
Luckily, not to bees. She wondered, later, whether Aileen Kirkinackie had counted on the peanut allergy as a symptom of wider allergies, but trying to understand what happened in that woman’s brain was a fool’s game. On their first night in their marital bed (in which they had been living for almost three years, but never before as husband and wife), Emily said to Graham, ‘I think your mother is trying to murder me,’ and he looked her right in the eye and said, ‘She is.’
It was hard to say what Aileen had against her. It might have been the fact that she had been to university, or that she had a proper job, or that she had saved the deposit for their apartment herself, or that she had very good hair (so thick, even after her babies were born and she lost half of it to the drain pipe in her shower), or that her father was Canadian, or that she believed in the moon landing, or that she was only twenty-five, or that she called drinking fountains ‘bubblers’, or that she didn’t know how to drive a manual car, or that she had insisted on calling their cat Lydia, or that she wore black liner on her bottom eyelids, or that she always ordered the house red, or that her parents lived in the worst small town on the entire east coast of Australia. But, as mentioned, trying to understand her reasoning was a waste of everybody’s time.
Aileen had visited two months after they met. (Graham moved fast like that, with everything (he’d asked Emily to marry him on their fourth date, while they were eating reheated burgers on the kerbside of a Melbourne laneway).) She said she had been coming anyway, because her bones were cold and they needed to thaw out in an Australian summer. Emily took her out to lunch at the art gallery and they walked across the footbridge and caught the free city tram out to the university, so Emily could show Aileen where she and Graham had met (eyes locking in the middle row of a Literature lecture, neither hearing the last of what the professor was saying about symbolism in 18th-century verse novels). It was only November but it had been a remarkably hot day. Emily and Aileen had taken a seat in the quadrangle and blossom had rained down on them and the wind had swept it around their feet like they were in a stage production. Aileen was not impressed. Aileen told Emily as much, that the university was terrible and the blossom was giving her hives and the Australian summer was nothing like what she had been led to believe (which was Bondi beaches, white sand, tanned bodies; not for a minute university quadrangles and cherry trees).
Then, at dinner, Emily had made her famous chicken schnitzel and potato bake with green beans. It was Graham’s favourite. What she didn’t know was that Aileen couldn’t tolerate breadcrumbs, on account of her Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and she had a childhood aversion to green beans because her great-grandfather had been a bean farmer and once he had whipped her with a chain. And also, potatoes? was Emily serious? She had clearly forgotten about the potato famine, which had affected many of Graham’s relatives and not just the criminals. Emily had made a show of putting all of the dinner in the bin, but had kept a little potato bake for herself for later. When Aileen opened the fridge to find herself some cold water (the heat! it wasn’t tropical, like she had been promised, but like being in the Sahara), she had seen the food and forced Graham to force Emily to sleep on the couch.
Sleeping on the couch wasn’t a problem. Emily stayed up all night, watching video clips and ads for vacuum cleaners that could hold bowling balls. By morning, she was feeling a new sense of optimism and made pancakes for all of them — with bacon, well before such a time as bacon would become a popular side dish for pancakes — and served them on the good blue china. Aileen picked over the pancakes. She tasted them. She turned them over. She sniffed the bacon. In the end she could not find fault with the food, but threw her plate hard onto the kitchen floor, because hadn’t Emily remembered that Graham’s grandfather had had an affair with a Chinese woman and left his grandmother to raise fifteen children on her own?
Aileen decided to go to Sydney to visit her cousin, and they hadn’t seen her again until the wedding.
Weddings were an exciting time in Shearer’s End. For a start, it was nice that Reverend Barrington got a chance to read from the good end of the Bible, instead of the funeral end. And it was nice that Tania, who had inherited the florist from her mother, got a chance to do up some colourful posies instead of those same white lilies all the time. And it was nice that Constable Jefferson could take a few minutes away from his homicide investigations to put on a nice suit with a pocket square (he had three: red polkadots; black and white herringbone; the one his wife had bought him with The Simpsons on it). Aileen had arrived in Shearer’s End, in secret, one week prior, to give herself the opportunity to finish the wedding arch/murder weapon. Of course, in a town the size of Shearer’s her arrival was a secret for only a matter of minutes, but she had locked herself away in the community garden shed, so no one knew exactly what she was up to. Emily and Graham were staying with Emily’s parents. During the day they went down to the park, where they sat on the swing set and talked about their exciting new life together. In the evenings, Emily fed rolls of paper into her mother’s pianola and Graham pushed the buttons and sang ‘he’s the boogie woogie bugle boy from’, because those were all the words he knew.
Most of the town turned out on the day. Emily’s sister, Claire, wore the silver dress Emily had chosen, and the silver platform shoes Emily had chosen, and the aftershave of the groomsman Claire had chosen. They had a string quartet playing Canon in D. They had a three-tiered white cake with piping work from top to bottom. Graham had written his own vows, and he stood under the arch his mother had made and promised to love Emily for every single day of their lives, even when she had got jowly, even when she had worn t-shirts to bed instead of sexy negligees, even when she had baby spew on her clothes (at this, the cells inside Emily divided and multiplied), even when they were both dead in the ground and his brain had no capacity to perform cerebral function. Emily had also written her own vows — it seemed remiss not to do this, having met in the Literature lecture and all — and she promised to love Graham on Monday morning and Tuesday morning and every other morning, especially Christmas morning, and especially watching their children on Christmas morning (the cells! x÷x÷). As she said this, Graham swatted something near his eye. Then he swatted something near his nose. It wasn’t until Emily had said, ‘I promise to love you on the fishy evening of Good Friday’ that someone shouted, ‘bees!’
And then the bees had stung Emily’s jaw, and although she wasn’t allergic she did scream so loudly her flower girl started crying, and everyone else started screaming because it seemed like an emergency, and once the swarm of bees moved from the wedding arch and into the congregation it really was an emergency (especially for Karen Jefferson, who was stung in the mouth).
So, there are no photos from the wedding of Emily Howard and Graham Kirkinackie, except for the one someone took of the Karen Jefferson’s ambulance for the local paper.
At the reception — Emily’s mother’s garden, three trestle table’s worth of finger food from Brenda Holloway’s bakery — Aileen tried to apologise to Graham. She didn’t know, she said, that the flowers had attracted so many bees. Many more than she had expected, she confessed. She had only meant for a cloud of them to form around Emily, and did he know the name of the woman who’d gone to hospital, so she could send flowers? Not with bees though, this time.
Emily’s father had built a dance floor from pallets he’d borrowed from the supermarket. He played golden oldies from the stereo in the rumpus room, with the speakers poking through the windows. Graham took Emily’s hand and swung her around to xxxx [song name], and remembered all the moves to the Macarena, and when the slow songs started he looked down at Emily’s face and touched the swollen line of her jaw and she felt like the most beautiful woman in the world with a mother-in-law who was trying to murder her.
At the end of the night, Graham drove her father’s car (cans attached to the back, JUST MARRIED in shaving foam, wedding ribbon falling off) up the road to the motel by the creek, where he had booked a room. The woman behind the desk was an old classmate of Emily’s; she winked at her and nodded her head towards Graham, who Emily noticed, with the fresh eyes of someone imagining how an old classmate might see him, was a very handsome man indeed. They took their single overnight bag and their swipe card to room 11B. The bed was hard as steel. The window was draughty. There was a noise coming through the wall like a bomb ticking and man moaning. But none of that mattered, because they were young and married and beautiful, and as they rolled sweaty and cold in the breeze from the broken window, all they could think of was the way their lives were just beginning.