‘He found an egg at the park so he incubated it and this tortoise hatched out.’
Skye’s sixteen, and her mum’s got yet another new boyfriend. Trouble is, Jason’s bad news. Really bad. Now Mum’s quit her job and they’re all moving north to Port Flinders, population nobody.
‘That’s a Southern Right Whale. They have the largest balls of any animal in the world.’
She’d do anything to keep her ten-year-old brother safe. Things she can’t even say out loud. But maybe she’s in love, too, a bit. Local footy legend Raf has such warm hands. He helps her forget, just for a minute.
‘Ladybirds bleed from their knees when they’re stressed.’
But when Jason gets violent, Skye knows she has to take control. She’s got to get Ben out and their mum’s useless as. The train home to Adelaide leaves first thing each morning and they both need to be on it. Now. Everything else can wait.
The Gulf is an acute, moving and uplifting story from the inimitable, alchemical imagination of Anna Spargo-Ryan.
My mother had morphed into all kinds of versions of herself. She’d been a cowboy boot wearer and a biker chick and a Liberal voter. She’d been a person who went to raves in the bush and a person who watched horror movies and a person who had to sleep with the fan on. They’d come and go, and she’d snap back to the woman who watched cooking shows and took spiders outside.
And then there was Jason.
A week after they met in the Big W checkout line, Mum asked him home for dinner. She had her hair swept to the side and she made tuna mornay in little white pots. When the buzzer rang, she pulled us by our wrists into the corridor.
‘You kids be good. Promise?’
‘We’re always good,’ Ben said. Her lips curled up. She opened the door.
‘Jason.’ They kissed on the mouth. ‘Jase.’
He looked around her and into the hall. ‘Who are they?’
Mum gathered us together. ‘ is little guy is Ben.’ Ben put out his hand and Jason stared at it. ‘And the big one is Skye.’ He was good-looking, in a balding, tattooed way, which had always been Mum’s type.
‘Didn’t know you had kids.’
‘You’ll like them,’ she said.
He gave her a bunch of flowers with a barcode on the side, just shoved them right into her hand. ‘Right then. What’s for dinner?’
Mum had the table laid out with placemats I’d never seen before. Cutlery from the picnic set she got with her Flybuys points that had handles made to look like ivory. She led him down the corridor by the hand with her feet floating above the ground.
‘Hope you like tuna,’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Got a mate with a boat, go out fishing for those bastards sometimes.’ He clinked his fork against the white bowl. ‘Never had it this fancy though.’ He ate quietly, contemplating each mouthful. e mornay was lumpy. I pushed the balls of our against the roof of my mouth and let them sit there in a film.
‘Where do you live?’ Ben said. Jason eyed him up and down, at the dinner table in his Iron Man pyjamas.
‘North of here.’
‘Everywhere’s north of here,’ I said. He looked at me.
‘Port Flinders, mostly.’
‘Never heard of it.’
‘Yeah, well. Why would you? No posh folk like you there.’ Mum put her hand on his arm.
‘Port Flinders,’ she said.
‘Wouldn’t call it that,’ he said, and chewed his tuna with his eyes closed.
After dinner Mum brought out a Viennetta and told Ben to cut out a slice as big as he wanted. We ate it from plastic bowls in front of the TV. A blonde woman shouted about landscaping and pies with berries in them.
‘Such good reception,’ Jason said. Mum had pushed him into the three-seater and he ate around her head, which moved up and down on his belly as he breathed. Next door’s TV was right on the other side of the wall. They were watching a movie. We could hear it every time Better Homes went to an ad break.
‘Might get a blanket,’ Mum said. We sat in the room with Jason and he didn’t look away from the TV once. Mum came back with the blanket, tossed it over both of them and her whole body disappeared under it. Jason stared ahead.
‘Are you going home soon, Jason?’ Ben said. Mum looked up at him and the blanket moved.
‘Dunno,’ he said.
‘I’m going to my room.’ I took the bowls to the kitchen and watched the people from the window. From there you could see right across to the Westfield, all the families late-night shopping in their Corollas or their Astras, buying burgers in the food court and sitting together and probably laughing. They came through the doors with their arms swinging, heavy with bags. Gifts, maybe. I left the bowls to dry on the counter.
My room was stale and I opened the window to let the air in. Season-end crickets were doing their tango in the car park downstairs. Mr and Mrs Adelmann from number six shouting because he’d cheated again, or she had. e screeching of the train coming to a stop in the tunnel.
A man had died in there last week. On the news they said ‘no suspicious circumstances’, but Kirrily from school had seen it with her own eyes, the man laid out on the tracks with his legs sliced off and blood shooting out everywhere. ‘It was pretty bad,’ she’d said. ‘I bet,’ I’d said, which didn’t seem like the right thing to say but I couldn’t think of anything else.
On my bed, I had a copy of Macbeth, second-hand, bruised and beat up at the edges, someone else’s notes inside. A cheat version. I read the lines again and again, trying to make myself understand all that mulched-up language. We were supposed to read from it in English on Monday, me as Lady Macbeth and some other kids reading the other parts. Not like a play, just to get the words right. And so our teacher didn’t have to do any actual teaching. Too busy having his fling with our homeroom teacher, everyone said.
Mum appeared at the door with her hands together. She had a faraway look. Glassy. I read about the bloody dagger, tried to decipher someone else’s handwriting in the margin. Mum coughed.
‘Yes?’ I said.
‘What do you think of him?’
‘I guess Lady Macbeth is the real brains of the operation,’
‘What? I mean Jason.’
‘Oh. I haven’t thought of him.’
‘Can’t believe I met him in Big W. I mean, of all places. Just so romantic to bump into each other in the line. He let me go ahead of him, you know. Real gentleman.’ I heard his voice from the kitchen, a mess of low growls. Mum sat on my bed. ‘He runs his own business. How good is that? In Port Flinders.’
‘Oh yeah? What does he do?’
‘Something in trading. Import–export stuff. Too complicated for us to understand, I bet.’ She touched her fingers to her face. ‘I’m glad you like him.’
‘I’ve got homework.’
‘Oh sure, of course.’ She lingered in the doorway, watching me. His voice came from down the hallway: ‘Linda, oi. How d’you get the lid off this thing?’
Mum winked. ‘Better get to bed,’ she said.
The walls between my bedroom and hers were paper thin. I listened to them into the night, the rhythmic thud against the floor.
‘At least wait until I’m asleep,’ I shouted, and the noise stopped.
Three days later, Mum gave Jason keys to the apartment.
‘He needs them, you know. Gotta come and go when you run your own business.’
I moved my homework to the kitchen table, watched him make phone calls from the couch. Ben sat next to me and drove his cars along the bench.
‘This one’s an HQ Monaro,’ he said. ‘And this one’s a Ford Escort. Look.’ They went drag-racing along the kitchen sink. ‘The Escort wins at short distances but the HQ can go for longer. Peter Brock had one just like it.’
‘Oh right,’ I said.
Jason whispered into his phone. Mum buzzed around him, sweeping and straightening. She bought a vacuum cleaner from Kmart and pushed that around him too, picking up dust that hadn’t had time to accumulate yet.
‘Linda,’ he said, ‘can you fucking not?’ and pointed at his ear.
‘I’ll put it on eBay,’ she said, and sat next to him on the couch with her hand on his knee. We stayed like that into the afternoon. Mum watching Jason do his business deals. Ben driving his cars around the kitchen. Me wondering if Lady Macbeth would get the blood off her hands.
Later, I walked Ben to the fish and chip shop. Jin wiped his hands on his apron: ‘What can I get you two?’ Minimum chips was three dollars and Mum had given us a bit extra to get some calamari rings. We took the paper packet to the bridge over the river and sat with our legs between the bars.
‘What’s on at school tomorrow?’ I said.
‘Spelling.’ He pulled the thin tendons of calamari from the batter. ‘Yiannis is gonna show me how to make a bomb out of a sparkler.’
‘Sounds cool, you mean.’
‘Give me some of that calamari.’
He ate two pieces, barely chewing. People walked around us on their way home from work, from university. We put our heads close together and tried to guess where they were going. A tall woman in leopard-print heels: to meet her boyfriend at the bar. A grandmother with three Myer bags to take to her grandson’s birthday. A young guy on a skateboard on his way to jump the balustrade at West eld.
I crumpled the oily paper and we took it home with us. ‘Keep Australia beautiful,’ I said. The apartment block car park was lit in a couple of corners by the two light posts still standing, and the apartments on the lower storey were cloaked in the night. Upstairs, some of the windows glowed yellow. All the twilight sounds came up from the road and lodged in the u-shaped building, as though it were a baseball glove.
The door at number six ew open and a shoe came hurtling out. ‘Why is Mrs Adelmann always so angry?’ Ben said. ‘She wakes me up.’
‘Let’s put the rubbish in the downstairs bin.’
Mum had her legs around Jason on the couch. She looked at us as we came in, but didn’t move.
‘Where’s my change?’ she said.
‘You told us we could get calamari rings,’ said Ben.
‘Like hell I did.’
Jason laughed. ‘Don’t suppose you got any for us?’
Ben looked to me. ‘No?’ he said.
I tipped two dollars from my pencil case and shoved it into Mum’s hand. ‘Get yourself something nice,’ I said. Jason laughed again and she slapped his arm.
‘Don’t encourage her,’ she said. ‘Got enough kids in this house without you acting like one too.’ She climbed off his lap. His phone rang.
I went out on the concrete balcony and watched the traffic go by. Over the road the new factories were going in, but on Sunday mornings they downed tools and if you strained, you could hear the river beating against the rocks.
I took Ben lizard hunting with Amir from the apartment next door. We went down to the river, where it went under the main road and into the park. Newts, they said. Sometimes. When the rain had been really heavy.
Amir’s parents had come to Australia when he was a baby, from Pakistan. ‘Don’t think they’ve got many lizards in Pakistan,’ Ben said.
‘Can’t remember,’ said Amir. ‘Pretty good food though I think.’
Ben nodded solemnly. ‘They’re teaching us about asylum seekers at school, now. Mrs Morris says they’re locked up on some island.’ He turned to Amir. ‘Did you get locked up on an island?’
‘Nah,’ he said, and picked up a bit of broken cement. ‘My dad’s a bricklayer.’
They ran up along the edges of the canal, stopped to look at bits of graffiti with swear words in them, started shouting them at each other. ‘Hey Ben! Fucking knobjockey! Fucking douche!’ And Ben: ‘Amir, you’re a bloody shitrag!’ People stopped on the bridge to look at them. My brother in his Guardians of the Galaxy t-shirt and Amir with his sandals slapping against the concrete.
‘Slow down!’ My voice bounced around the aqueduct. We reached the tunnel that would take us underground and through to the park. Amir stopped.
‘What if the rain starts again?’
Ben farted, laughed. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Kids drown in these tunnels when it rains. It rushes through and they get swept away, you know.’
‘No they don’t.’
The day was dry and warm. ‘ There’s no rain coming,’ I said. Ben ran into the tunnel. ‘The good lizards are this way, Amir!’ The younger boy stood at the entrance a good while longer, peering into the blackness of the tunnel. ‘It’s so dark,’ he said.
‘That’s only because it goes around the corner,’ I said. ‘It’s like fifteen metres and then you get to the bend and when you go round it, you’re practically out.’ He shifted from foot to foot. ‘I can hold your hand, if you like?’
The movement stopped. ‘Ben?’ he called. Silence. Amir’s hand slipped into mine and we walked together, his tiny legs going twice as fast as mine and his palm sweaty.
At the park a few people gathered around a barbecue, which hissed and spat into the midday air. A kid on a bike. The same kid falling off the bike, trailed by a mother with a bandaid. A girl on a swing. A boy on a swing. An adult on a swing. I sat at the edge of the canal and watched the way they were with each other, touching and laughing.
Mum didn’t come with us to the park very often. Not at all, really. She said families depressed her, which was probably true. Lots of things upset her, especially people being happy in public, where she could see them. She never looked into the Westfield car park from the kitchen window.
A man watched the boys as they made their way along the creek bed. Ben’s skin had flushed red in the sun and excitement. He laughed loudly, and it ricocheted. Another boy joined them, and another. The four of them picked over the rocks together, shouting at each sign of a webbed foot or a scaly tail.
Still the man watched. The littlest boy slipped where moss had grown against the concrete. He cried. Ben bent down to him, pulled him up by his hands. ‘Are you okay?’ he said.
The man was standing then. ‘Oliver, get back over here.’ The boy limped towards him. Ben came to sit next to me, pulled his cap down over his eyes. I wrapped my arm around his shoulders, the way I always did; he rarely pushed it off.
‘Do you like Jason?’ he said. His legs were so close to mine. I wondered if his sweat would fuse our skin together.
‘Dunno,’ I said. ‘Do you?’
‘I guess? I think Mum likes him.’
‘Yeah. She busted me at the fridge in the middle of the night and didn’t even yell.’
‘Wow.’ He looked at me. ‘Was he still there when you got up this morning?’
‘Don’t think so.’
He turned over a heavy rock. ‘Got one! Amir, look!’ A gecko, skin so soft it was transparent. He held it in his open palm and we laughed at the dropped tail as it danced on its own. Watched its organs throbbing inside its bones.
Extracted from The Gulf by Anna Spargo-Ryan, Picador Australia, RRP $29.99'. Please also note that the book is available for pre-order now and in stores now.